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Francis J. MacDonald

Savoir-être: Josef von Sternberg’s ‘Morocco’

[Originally published in Movietone News 37, November 1974]

Marlene Dietrich first appeared to American audiences as a dark figure browsing over the deck of a ship in the fog somewhere off the coast of Morocco. Her visual treatment on this occasion is worth noting. Dietrich, as Amy Jolly, assumes a position at the rail and looks out toward the camera, a strand of rope angling across screen above her. The shot is not a closeup; we are able to see a couple Arabs lounging in the background and to the side. Nor is Dietrich singularly spotlighted against a velvety darkness; she is not swallowed in shadow, but neither are the Arabs, over whom a faint glow is allowed to play and above whom light streams from a ship’s window. It is characteristic of Sternberg that Dietrich is not isolated against a neutral environment but rather is part of a highly textured one, part of an environment and at the same time its controlling element, the principle of balance amid its richness and the primary justification of its existence.

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Götterdämmerung in Technicolor: Fritz Lang’s ‘Rancho Notorious’

[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]

O listen … listen well:
Listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck,
Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the song of the gambler’s wheel,
A souvenir of a bygone year,
Spinning a tale of the old frontier
And a man of steel,
And the passion that drove him on, and on, and on.

It began, they say, one summer’s day
When the sun was blazing down;
‘Twas back in the early Seventies
In a little Wyoming town.
So, listen to the Legend of Chuck-a-Luck, Chuck-a-Luck,
Listen to the Wheel of Fate
As round and round with a whispering sound
It spins, it spins
The old, old story of
Hate, Murder and Revenge!

Any movie that gets underway with a song like that is going to be a little strange. And Rancho Notorious is strange. Peculiar. Outrageous. Utterly distinctive. I can only sympathize with any Western fan who dropped into his local grindhouse some night in 1952 for an hour-and-a-half of vicarious gunplay and eye-soothing scenery. Although it includes a goodly amount of shooting, a jailbreak, a bank holdup, a vicious fistfight and some token (very second-unit–style) hard riding, Rancho Notorious offers little in the way of genre compensations. Its theme ballad forgoes the customary easy jogging rhythms of most Western music for a tortuous, neurotic progression all its own; the mode is epic, but closer to Brechtian Epic than big-country epic. Indeed, the song bids to be exemplary: we are advised to “listen, listen well.” The didactic note is consistent with the previous work of a director who has specialized in putting his protagonists through hellish learning experiences (a character in one film speaks of having watched himself burn to death a dozen times over in a newsreel of his “lynching”; another Lang film consists mostly of a dream wherein the protagonist witnesses himself succumbing to what seems a single harmless temptation, then being lost in a morass of guilty complications that serve to confirm his waking self in straitlaced morality). And the film is exotically personal. It is drolly, thrillingly right that the last four words of the chorus should coincide with the credit title DIRECTED BY FRITZ LANG: Rancho Notorious is a Teutonic revenge drama that partakes of the conventions and uses of the American Western—gunmen on horseback settling disputes against mythic backgrounds—without ever leaving the Fritz Lang universe. Siegfried, Kriemhild, and Hagen Tronje would feel right at home at Chuck-a-Luck.

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