Rewriting Allegory with a Vengeance: Textual Strategies in Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious

Article excerpt

Fritz Lang's Western Rancho Notorious is proposed as allegory, not in the literary-historical mode, but as an attitude or perception occurring when one text is seen to double another. This essay pursues the idea of film as rebus, as a narrative "other," allowing us to see beyond the traditional or modernist view, which is antithetical to allegory.


Perhaps to a greater extent than in any other film genre, the classical Western of the 1930s and 1940s is characterized by binary oppositions, which help to build constellations of meaning. The Western avoids grey areas in favour of a well-marked white-hat/black-hat ideological binarism of protagonist and antagonist. The genre may indeed have served to furnish contemporary audiences with a needed symbolic realism that allowed them to re-synthesize what was contradictory in their lives: the greater the contradictions in our behaviour, the greater the need for a fantasy that might resolve them. Twentieth-century capitalism increasingly regulated the behaviour of the male human subject and placed restraints upon him. He became a polite, clock-watching, productive citizen. At the same time, it became more difficult to attach villainy to a human face: where once those afflicted with the deadly sin of greed might be singled out and their miserliness condemned, now they were firmly and invisibly embedded within capi talism as its very cornerstones. The classical Western, then, provided a spectacle of greed and villainy that were clearly identifiable in a distinct individual or group, whether bandits, ranchers, or town merchants.

In his structural study of myths, Claude Levi-Strauss asserts that the function of myth is to resolve the conflicts that confront primitive societies by maintaining them in a suspension of contradiction. "The purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real)" (229). As such a myth, the Western of classical Hollywood cinema made it possible to believe, however fleetingly, in an existing ethical system capable of distinguishing good from evil, and of meting out justice. Once this identification made sense within the film's diegetic space, it helped the viewer make sense of the world. Viewed in this light, the Western as genre might seem comparable to a narrower, thoroughly modernist perception of allegory as antiquated, a form invested in justice and redemption, featuring innocent tales heavily appended with moral tags, and, as such, a prime producer of ideology upholding and reinforcing a social order. S uch an appraisal of allegory, however, focusses solely on the techniques of a literary-historical mode and overlooks allegory as an attitude or perception occurring when one text is seen to double another. Seeking a redefinition of allegory in a postmodern perspective, Craig Owens points to the Western, the gangster saga, and science fiction--all genres associated primarily with film--as the primary vehicles for popular allegory in our time. In addition to its widespread appeal, the cinema's mode of representation is also of structural importance for the attribution of allegory. "Film composes narratives out of a succession of concrete images," Owens writes, "which makes it particularly suited to allegory's essential pictogrammatism. In allegory, the image is a hiero glyph. An allegory is a rebus, writing composed of concrete images" (74). A rebus may be defined as a puzzle in which a word, phrase, or sentence is rendered by a peculiar arrangement of letters, numerals, etcetera, often with pictures of objects whose names have the same sounds as the words represented. In the Freudian theory of the dreamwork, the dream image as rebus can hold several different meanings at once, and can hold conflicting ones simultaneously. The mechanisms of the dreamwork, translated to film, form rebuses that allow us to study juxtaposed graphics, figures, and sound, as well as configurations of objects that may emblematize the narrative or work in contradiction to it. …