Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The dynamic and versatile Burt Lancaster became an instant star in producer Mark Hellinger's 1946 The Killers. The former circus acrobat was initially considered more of a moody sex object than an actor. In three years he made seven films noir, often stripping down to his undershirt to play flawed men betrayed by gorgeous dames. Lancaster was under contract to the successful and experienced producer Hal B. Wallis, who brought Lancaster with him when he moved from Warners to Paramount. Although given star billing from the start, the actor chafed at some of his movie assignments. Just five years later his own production company with Harold Hecht would make the hits Apache and Vera Cruz, and earn a Best Picture Oscar with Paddy Chayefsky's Marty.
In 1949 Lancaster was still on the Wallis payroll, playing yet another grim-faced adventurer in a sandstorm in the desert west of Yuma, Arizona. Rope of Sand is a tale of diamonds and intrigue in South Africa. The plot brings together a group of shifty fortune hunters, including three cast members from the wartime classic Casablanca. Two years back, lion-hunting guide Mike Davis (Lancaster) was forced to trespass on the property of the Colonial Diamond Company, which is surrounded by a heavily guarded no-man's-land called the Rope of Sand. Mike was willing to tell exactly where his greedy client found a fortune in uncut diamonds, but clammed up when the overzealous, sadistic Commandant of Mine Police Paul Vogel (Paul Henreid) tried to beat the information from him. After discovering that the vindictive Vogel has had him barred from legitimate work on the continent, Mike returns to recover a hidden treasure trove. Vogel volunteers to acquaint Mike with a few new torture methods, but Colonial's scheming executive Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains) prefers instead to obtain the information in a more amorous way, by hiring the French adventuress Suzanne Renaud (Corinne Calvet). Also entering into the dangerous equation are the camp's Doctor Hunter (Sam Jaffe) and the unscrupulous opportunist Toady (Peter Lorre). Mike has a secret plan to bribe his way past Vogel's Afrika Corps- like security troops, but dare he put it into effect?
A polished production on all technical levels, the gritty Rope of Sand was filmed from a screenplay purchased by producer Wallis specifically for Burt Lancaster in 1947. Although William Dieterle's direction is capable, the script works too hard to introduce an overly familiar collection of stock thriller types. Feared by his own men, Commandant Vogel is the unloved martinet who prides himself on catching diamond smugglers and torturing them for information. The cultured but irredeemably corrupt Martingale pretends to champion Vogel's bid for a seat on the company's board, yet blackballs him with every secret vote. Martingale acts the disinterested observer yet is the secret manipulator behind every crooked scheme. Suzanne Reynaud blackmails Martingale by threatening to accuse him of rape, but instead agrees to seduce Mike for money. When Mike and Vogel aren't physically tormenting one another they show an interest in Suzanne, who is revealed to be a displaced person from the war, with no other means of supporting herself. The promise of an amorous future with Mike straightens her out. Shoehorned uncomfortably into the proceedings is the superfluous Toady, who appears in just three brief scenes to dispense what Cue magazine generously called "sophomoric aphorisms".
Rope of Sand isn't exactly brimming with new ideas. Lancaster stumbles twice through the arid desert and is subjected to numerous whippings and beatings -- his stoic acceptance of the punishments almost seems perverse. The storyline could use more action scenes and fewer uninspiring confrontations between its greedy diamond hunters. More than one scene hinges on a gun changing hands in time-honored but dusty "Aha, the tables have turned!" fashion. People are forced to sign confessions at gunpoint and double-crosses become triple-crosses as if loyalty were a game of musical chairs. Why any of these people bother to listen to each other is a mystery, as all know perfectly well that nobody is telling the truth. The arbitrary plot reversals may have caused censors to overlook the fact that at the film's fade-out, one of the villains responsible for a murder walks away completely unpunished.
The isolated outpost Diamantstadt is a hellhole in the desert, yet both Martingale and Vogel maintain luxurious private houses. Vogel's new showplace looks like it should be in Palm Springs. All we see of the diamond operation is Vogel's clever methods to detect thievery. He routinely X-rays workers to examine their innards for swallowed gems. Vogel delights in ripping a bandage from worker Mike Mazurki's arm, revealing contraband stones hidden in the wound.
As is common in genre films of the Cold War era, ostentatious high culture is a sure sign of corruption. At one point Vogel shows off a Sèvres porcelain vase, boasting that he bought the valuable item for a song from a (presumably Jewish) Frenchman forced to flee during the occupation. Vogel's cruel revelation reminds Suzanne of own backstory of wartime hardship. True to the unwritten tough-guy code, Mike Davis smashes the vase to bits just for the pleasure of seeing the look on Vogel's face. Mike enjoys perverse acts of destruction almost as much as he "enjoys" being hung by his feet and whipped.
Leading lady Corinne Calvet thought her big break had arrived two years earlier when she was brought to Hollywood as a possible challenger to Rita Hayworth. She was set to star in Paramount's Sealed Verdict (1948), but when it was decided that Calvet's English wasn't yet good enough the part was instead given to actress Florence Marly. Playing up the sex angle, Paramount publicists exploited a moment in which Calvet's character violently rips her dress in an attempt to compromise the unflappable cad played by Claude Rains. Time magazine slighted Ms. Calvet's spirited Hollywood debut with a real cheap shot: "For all her diamantine Gallic Glamour, Calvet is only a rhinestone in the rough."
Rope of Sand may have been a low point for Burt Lancaster before his career reboot as a swashbuckling swordsman in the next year's The Flame and the Arrow. Critics generally liked Lancaster's performance, even if they slighted the work of Claude Rains and Peter Lorre and saved the bulk of their praise for Paul Henried's nasty villain. Lancaster's own assessment of the film was unprintable, but he was quoted at a time when he was itching to move on to more interesting roles. Mike Davis is the last of Lancaster's early-career heroes that suffer gruesome beatings (Rope of Sand) or die in hopeless despair (Criss Cross) or animalistic rage (Brute Force).
Olive Films' DVD of Rope of Sand is a handsome presentation with a smooth and sharp transfer of a B&W thriller requested by many Burt Lancaster fans. Charles B. Lang Jr.'s atmospheric camerawork is at its best out in the open desert, and in a howling nighttime sandstorm fight between Lancaster and a diamond guard on top of a halftrack armored car. Franz Waxman's brooding score is good, but a slightly distorted soundtrack renders some of the softer dialogue less clear than it might be. The disc carries no extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rope of Sand rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 27, 2011
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2011 Glenn Erickson
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