Rope of Sand

“Consider the diamond itself for instance. Carbon, soot, chemically speaking. And yet the hardest of all matters. So hard, in fact, that whatever it touches must suffer: glass, steel, the human soul.”

Peter Lorre uses that line, or a variation thereof, something like three times throughout Rope of Sand (1949). It’s not a bad line and has an air of wistfulness about it, and it’s tempting to wonder whether the filmmakers were hoping that this echoing might encapsulate the spirit of the movie. In a way it does, but probably not as originally envisaged. In essence, Rope of Sand is a simple story, one incorporating revenge, justice and a treasure hunt. Yet for all its simplicity, it feels somewhat repetitious, stretching its material more than is necessary and losing some of the inherent tautness in the process.

In brief, the plot revolves around Mike Davis (Burt Lancaster), a disgraced hunter who has fallen foul of the mining authorities after stumbling through (I presume, although it’s never explicitly referred to as such) the Namib desert in pursuit of a client who recklessly felt he could sneak out some diamonds. The result is the death of the client as well as a beating and torture for Davis, supplemented by the loss of his license. That ought to be enough to ensure any man would give the place a wide berth in future, but Davis is driven in true noir style by both a thirst for revenge and some sort of justice or recompense – he doesn’t appear certain himself as to which one holds the strongest allure. Up against him is the local commandant, the sadistic Vogel (Paul Henreid), and his debonair boss Martingale (Claude Rains). The latter wants to lay his hands on the diamonds Davis left behind just as much as the aggrieved hunter does. To that end he flies in a Frenchwoman of questionable reputation (Corinne Calvet) with the aim of coaxing the location from Davis, and then delights in the added bonus of seeing the new arrival add another layer to the antagonism between Vogel and Davis.

Walter Doniger’s script contains a fair bit of toing and froing, plans made and dropped, schemes attempted and foiled, and retribution handed out. There are dark mutterings amid exotic surroundings, interspersed with a smattering of witticisms as dry and abrasive as the South African sand. Past events are alluded to over hard liquor and a haze of cigarette smoke, then rather unnecessarily clarified via a flashback sequence that serves to simply slow everything down. And all the while the tone is shifting in tandem with the dunes of the surrounding wasteland, louche charm rubbing shoulders uncomfortably with instances of truly grim brutality.

On the other hand, these Hal Wallis productions tend to have a very grand look, a real cinematic sheen that is hard to resist. William Dieterle’s mise-en-scène and Charles Lang’s wonderful lighting combine to present some genuinely sumptuous shots and on occasion it approaches expressionism – the silhouetted figure atop a dune, the torture of Lancaster. Visually, the whole production is quite splendid. As for Franz Waxman’s score, I again found portions of it jarred and almost swallowed up the action on screen instead of complementing and supporting it.

Burt Lancaster is said to have disliked the movie intensely but his work on screen reflects none of that. It’s yet another variation on his, by that stage, patented studies in tough vulnerability and the type of thing he could practically sleepwalk through. Maybe it wasn’t much of a stretch for him dramatically but he turned in a credible piece of work all the same. Paul Henreid ‘s interpretation of an irredeemable sadist is powerful and intimidating, saved from becoming totally one-dimensional by the actor’s ability to hint at an awareness of his own failings. Claude Rains is all silken malice, a puppeteer whose viciousness only appears more palatable than that of Henreid due to the sheen of elegance and sophistication he wraps it up in. The only woman in the story is Corinne Calvet, hired by Rains to act as a siren and finding herself gradully falling victim to the  subterfuge and betrayals. Sam Jaffe’s alcoholic medic is underused and Peter Lorre as a lowlife fixer going by the glorious name of Toady drifts in and out of proceedings like some sweat-stained Falstaff.

Olive Films released Rope of Sand on both DVD and Blu-ray in the US but I’m not sure about availability elsewhere. It sports a terrific cast and Dieterle’s visual nous is never in question. I’d say it is sporadically entertaining, but the script allows the plot to drift too much in places and the tone lurches a little too freely – the smart dialogue and the harsh physical violence form an uneasy mix with this viewer.

That brings me to the end of this brief exploration of the cinema of William Dieterle which I have undertaken over the course of this month. I did toy with the idea of keeping it going a little longer but I have a hunch a triple bill such as this is sufficient for the present as too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. Nevertheless, I will certainly return to the director’s work as it represents a rich vein for movie fans.

61 thoughts on “Rope of Sand

  1. Colin

    Well said my good man. I also liked the look of the film which is excellent. Your points on the story drifting a bit is exactly what I was thinking. The cast as you point out are all in top form. What a wonderful cad Claude Rains plays here. Did he ever take a wrong step in any role? Taken as a whole, the film is worth a watch, as the good parts I think outweigh the weaker bits. I like noir that use a non urban setting.. My take on it anyways.

    Again, good job.
    Gord

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    • The visual aesthetic is big part of the film’s appeal,not just the lighting and composition but the art direction too. Hal Wallis productions tended to excel in this area of course.
      I do have some issues with the writing but I agree the positive points certainly make it worth viewing. Noir is often characterized as being an essentially urban phenomenon and I guess it’s fair to say that not only are its roots to be found in that environment but most of the more notable examples conform to that view. However, there are also numerous examples which break out of that narrower interpretation.

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    • It’s nice to have the opportunity to pass on informtion about films that have passed us by or that we have just not been aware of for one reason or another. I have a hunch this may not have been screened much in the past – I know I caught it on TV (perhaps on Channel 4 in its early days) back in the 1980s but a long time passed before I had the chance to see it again.

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  2. One can certainly see Wallis trying to recapture the magic of his CASABLANCA production here but the postwar Noir was a very different place. It’s weird seeing Lancaster being put in slightly submissive roles at this time but I really like Henreid as a villain. I’ve not seen this one in decades however, thanks for another great analysis Colin.

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    • Yes, the exotic locale, and the casting, does recall Casablanca but this is a different movie, darker in tone overall and with a script that’s neither as slick nor as cohesive.
      I think Lancaster was fed up with these kinds of roles by this stage but he was very good in them and it’s hard to think of another big name lead at the time who could have done so as convincingly.

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      • Colin……I’ve always had a problem with this movie. It had all the makings to be something better than it was. It would be easy to put the blame on an uneven script, but it’s more than that. I have often thought who would have been a better fit than Lancaster? We have a familiar team of three great actors in support of Lancaster, Rains, Heinreid and Lorre, To me, here in lies the problem…….the chemistry of these four great actors just doesn’t meld together. My view……someone other than Lancaster in the lead role or part of the team of Rains, Henreid and Lorre be partially split. Paul Henreid, I always felt was miscast at no fault of his own.

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        • Hmm, you think the dynamic is faulty among the leads? That’s possible. I hadn’t thought of that and I guess it’s hard to say one way or the other for sure – I mean, we can only go by what we have on the screen. Supposing you’re right here, I’m struggling to think who could step into Lancaster’s role. It’s not an easy one to fill – that blend of vulnerability and toughness isn’t so easy to pull off successfully – and I can’t think offhand of a replacement. Perhaps John Garfield?
          As for Henreid, he’s not the first person to spring to mind in such a villainous role, but of course he had just come off Hollow Triumph / The Scar so it wasn’t a complete departure. Even so, I still tend to think of him as he was in Casablanca and Now, Voyager.

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          • For the sake of hypothesis lets suppose John Garfield mixing it up with the trio of Rains, Heinreid and Lorre. For me, the chemistry is there which had already been established when all four stars were at Warner’s. Even could have been a little payback from Hal Wallis to Jack Warner for the stunt Jack perpetuated on Hal at the 16th Academy Awards when Jack took credit for Best Picture Casablanca. Events tell us this led to Wallis leaving Warner’s the following month. Henceforth, Wallis forms his own Production Company and his main big star Burt Lancaster becomes the chosen one. Here is the problem for me. Everything about this Hal B. Wallis Production screams Warner Brothers……mainly because of the trio of former Warner stars. Include the presence of Burt Lancaster……leaves us a perception of Burt being out of place. If one what’s to change that perception…..change the chemistry of the leads.

            Oh, I agree with you, Colin. John Garfield is the only actor I can think of that may have fit the part.

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    • Those I mentioned were just wish list titles, Gord – there’s been no indication that I’m aware of that they are even being considered. Indicator in the UK have very broadly hinted that Naked Aibi is on the way so they appear to have access to Universal materials. This combined with the releases by Kino in the US and Imprint in Australia raise hopes. However, it’s still a matter of keeping our fingers crossed at this stage.

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  3. My own viewing experience of “ROPE OF SAND” is identical to yours, Colin – it probably was early days of CH4. I have seen it once only since then. However I have the Olive Films DVD sitting in my ‘to watch’ stack and your reminder will make me bump it up the pile!
    A terrific cast indeed, certainly the male stars anyway.

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      • “SHAKEDOWN” is a good U.I. film that desperately needed a release so it is indeed exciting news that KL are releasing a BluRay. Sadly It will be R1 only which rules it out for me. Great news though.

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      • “Shakedown’ is an excellent film noir with the whole cast and crew shining. I sure could use an upgrade over my dvd-r copy, which was lifted from a tv broadcast that I had on a rather weather beaten vhs. .

        Gord .

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        • RE SHAKEDOWN……..as a Lawrence Tierney guy, I would love to see this movie in HD. The intense encounters between Duff and Tierney are memorable. In HD, in my opinion, more than anyone else, Tierney’s stock goes way up.

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          • I’m quite the opposite when it comes to Tierney. I’ve probably said it before but I tend to avoid movies he appears in – I just don’t get on with his persona – but I’ve heard plenty of praise for Shakedown and the other cast and crew members are attractive enough for me to put that particular prejudice aside.

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    • “Tropical noir” – I like that term. Agreed, films that slot into such a category do exert an attraction. There’s something about the oppressive atmosphere they typically evoke that adds to the enjoyment. A sluggish ceiling fan just feels very noir.

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    • I can quite understand where you’re coming from. Just the pleasure of seeing some of the cast members on screen helps raise it for me, but the weaknesses which are inherent in the script are always present and certainly cause problems, and that score which I only mentioned briefly doesn’t help.

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  4. Crikey, another one for the watchlist. I can never figure out if Burt Lancaster is very good or just a piece of wood ( a considerable man mountain piece of wood, mind), but he always has a certain screen presence. Like when I saw Charlton Heston in Dark City, the guy has ‘Star’ all over him, regardless of whether he’s actually any good or not: there’s just a certain tension with the camera that’s almost indefinable.

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    • I’m a great fan of Lancaster’s work. He got off to a great start in films noir and then explored a wide range of characters in just abou every genre imaginable. The Swimmer, as mentiond above, is something worth seeing, and I’m always keen to encourage people towards Sweet Smell of Success, Vera Cruz, Separate Tables and Ulzana’s Raid – all very different roles in very different films but, in my opinion anyway, all quite compelling.

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  5. Throw out a wide enough net and some of these titles might fit in the “tropical noir and ceiling fan” genre,
    CALCUTTA, THE BRIBE, SINGAPORE, KEY LARGO, RIFFRAFF, TANGIER, SIROCCO, MACAO, NOTORIOUS, SAIGON, TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH and WAGES OF FEAR. I am sure there are more, but that is all that come to mind at the moment.

    Gord

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    • It’s not only an interesting genre, it includes some very very good films. Just looking at your list I rate THE BRIBE very highly indeed, and SINGAPORE and CALCUTTA are very under-appreciated. There are a couple of movies in your list I haven’t seen but now I’m going to be frantically searching for them.

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    • It’s depressing how many of those movies are difficult to get. I can’t find any copies of TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH or TANGIER. There’s a fearsomely expensive Spanish DVD of SAIGON which or may not be English-friendly.

      And SAIGON stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. How could such a movie not be released on DVD?

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      • I had a ropey old DVD of To the Ends of the Earth but it can/could be viewed in pretty good quality online.
        Saigon poses more problems. I have never seen it looking anything other than beat up and poor, although the same was true for Calcutta until very recently so I wouldn’t give up on hopes of a better version coming on the market.

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        • I ended up buying (and reviewing) the Italian DVD release of Saigon. It’s obviously unrestored and it’s not the kind of pristine transfer you’d get from a company like Kino Lorber but I’d describe the image quality as reasonably acceptable. The movie has lots of tropical noir atmosphere but it’s mostly worth seeing for Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake who are both in fine form.

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  6. This weekend I shall be watching the following for the first time, LONESOME DOVE..

    First viewing, the I989 television mini-series, LONESOME DOVE. Admitting that I have never seen said series, will most likely have me tarred and feathered and rode out of town on a rail. At the time it was on the tube, I was still working the local blues club, “The King Edward”. Tv was not high on my list of things to do for several years. But I have heard more than a few positive reports on said series.

    Gord

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  7. I think HELL’S ISLAND in Technicolor and VistaVision qualifies as “Exotic Noir” too bad there is no “official” Blu Ray or DVD available. Phil Karlson was really on a roll at that time.
    Australia’s Imprint seem to be the only label releasing vintage Paramount material so they may be a safe bet for Karlson’s film. In December they are releasing THE NAKED JUNGLE on Blu Ray a fan favourite for sure. I’m also very excited that they are releasing Ida Lupino’s OUTRAGE from a new 2K scan-I love it when these obscure little movies turn up in beautifully restored editions.
    Regarding Indicator I understand that they are releasing sets of Universal Noir when they have done with Columbia. I thought that Gene Barry “teaser” pic was from THE HOUSTON STORY but if you say it’s from NAKED ALIBI that’s fine by me. The Universal Noir I really want is UNDER THE GUN with iconic Noir actors Richard Conte and Audrey Totter. The more and more I see of Conte,the more impressed I am. UNDER THE GUN was directed by the always interesting Ted Tetzlaff. Yes NAKED ALIBI is a good as a programmer gets..
    These Indicator Noir sets have plugged some serious gaps in my Columbia Noir collection with Volume 4 there’s only one film that I’ve actually seen A BULLET IS WAITING which as far as I’m concerned is not really a Noir anyway but it’s nice to have in high def. THE BROTHERS RICO is top drawer Phil Karlson and Richard Conte too. PUSHOVER also was wonderful..cannot believe I’ve never caught this one before. WALK A CROOKED MILE another gem from Gordon Douglas’
    most impressive period. WALK EAST ON BEACON more proof that Alfred Werker was a master of Noir pity that he never made more. Great low angle interiors with plenty of ceilings and striking night time exteriors and often sensational day time location work. A triumph of style over content ‘though it was nice to see several strident foxy females cast as the Commie agents.

    I’ve enjoyed Colin’s Dieterle trilogy and it’s always nice to see a director highlighted that is generally ignored by the “Auteur” crowd.

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    • John, I agree on Hell’s Island – good call.
      I saw that Imprint have The Naked Jungle coming. I like that movie a lot and I’d love to have a Blu-ray of that. Speaking of upcoming releases, I see Warners have a knockout lineup for December – Party Girl, Fury and Some Came Running are just a few of the titles due – I’d buy the lot on release day if only my finances were a little healthier.

      I’m glad you liked the William Dieterle trio and, to trail my next posting, which will probably be on Monday, there’s a bit of a Dieterle connection there too, although I have a hunch the movie may not be a big favorite of yours. And that’s as much as I’ll say for the moment. As ever, stay tuned…

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  8. Colin,I was aware of FURY and PARTY GIRL I’m sure there will be a few
    other November archive releases as well.
    Talking of Imprint their recent Silver Screams Collection was a raid on the
    Paramount/Republic vaults with several vintage Republic thrillers one from
    Monogram and a couple of RegalScope titles to round things off.
    What was encouraging was the beautiful condition the Republic titles were
    in which bodes well for anyone considering releasing some of Republic’s
    vintage Crime/Noir B Thrillers.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I watched Robert Montgomery’s “Ride the Pink Horse” last night. Viewers seem to think it’s either superb or deeply flawed. Some just find it plain weird. I thought it was a very good film and was fortunate to watch it on a pristine print from Criterion. It’s definitely offbeat and has some preternatural elements to it that might turn some people off. But I found the characters of Lucky Gagan, Pila the mysterious young girl, and Pancho the carousel owner to be interesting and fully developed. Fred Clark and Andrea King are thoroughly villainous and Art Smith plays an avuncular FBI agent. Russel Metty’s camera work is excellent. Some may disagree with me but I think that Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer’s script keeps a somewhat fantastic tale from drifting into the ether. They certainly provide some sharp dialogue. I’ve avoided the film in the past because I’m not a fan of Robert Montgomery. Now, this is pure prejudice because I’ve never watched any of his films in their entirety and that includes “They Were Expendable”. I wonder if others at RTHC like “Ride the Pink Horse” or consider it a failure.

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    • I like it too. Now that you’ve mentioned the movie I’ve just realized that I still haven’t read Dorothy B Hughes book and I’ve had it on the shelf for years.
      As for Montgomery, I like They Were Expendable quite a bit, but I’m not so fond of Lady in the Lake. I recently picked up a copy of The Saxon Charm, which I have never seen so I’m curious about that.

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