Wyoming cowpoke Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) sets out in pursuit of the two bandits who murdered and molested his fiancée Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry). He tracks the pair to their campsite where he finds one of them, Whitey (John Doucette), dying from a gunshot wound in the back courtesy of his treacherous partner. Haskell hears Whitey's last word, "Chuck-A-Luck", and follows the clues to a legendary gunfighter named Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), whom he rescues from jail in order to lead him to a hideout of that name owned by Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), a former showgirl and saloon singer turned horse rancher. There, Haskell impresses with his skills as a gunslinger and falls for Altar's charms, all the while keeping one eye on the man he came in search of.
Disappointingly, Rancho Notorious is nothing like as kitsch and eccentric as Nicholas Ray's similarly feminist Johnny Guitar (1954) with Joan Crawford. Altar's outlaw colony makes for an interesting setting but, in the end, all the film has to offer is a fairly ho-hum revenge plot, cheap sound stage sets and some Technicolor photography that does its ageing star Dietrich very few favours. So tight was the film's budget that Marlene apparently had to arrive on set fully made up having applied the necessary slap herself at home (presumably using a trowel). She was inevitably displeased by this, loathed director Fritz Lang and was frustrated in her romantic pursuit of co-star Ferrer, then married to Audrey Hepburn. I agree with her later assessment that the result is "a very mediocre work", however, with Kennedy distinctly lacking star power in the lead. One would have hoped for better from Lang though it does share his familiar theme of good men driven to extremes by a thirst for revenge, a subject he would handle with much greater aplomb in The Big Heat (1953). There are one or two memorably unusual scenes, however, plus a pleasantly silly theme song from William Lee that was intended to compliment the film's original title, The Legend Of Chuck-A-Luck, which RKO head honcho Howard Hughes rightly insisted on changing. Rancho Notorious is also of interest for its featuring George Reeves in a minor character part, he being the star of the popular Adventures Of Superman television series between 1952 and 1958, whose sad death was the subject of Allen Coulter's interesting fictionalised biopic Hollywoodland in 2006.