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.

The Accused

Film noir never seems to go out of fashion. Sure it has seen its box office power ebb and flow somewhat since its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s but movie fans keep coming back to it and if the number of articles, books and releases are anything to go by, its popularity remains strong. Is there then some paradox at work that sees something retaining popularity when at heart it relies on dark and/or pessimistic themes? Is it the cautionary tale aspect of it all that draws viewers, that vicarious thrill which comes from seeing others experience the dangers? Or is it the fact that noir is not so much dependent on the depiction (and the exploitation) of bad luck as on poor decisions? I feel it’s difficult to actively enjoy or take pleasure in witnessing bad luck, even the fictitious variety. However, looking at characters making poor or unwise choices is a different matter, not requiring one to indulge in something as distasteful as schadenfreude. The Accused (1949) is a classic film noir where the lead finds herself drawn into a typically dark vortex by her poor judgement and questionable decision making.

In characteristically noir style The Accused opens with a sense of urgent desperation. A woman is trying to put some distance between herself and what looks like something ugly. She is Wilma Tuttle (Loretta Young), a psychology professor, and after she stumbles guiltily along the highway, cadges a ride from a helpful truck driver and finally makes it back to her apartment, we learn via a brief flashback sequence about those bad decisions. Disoriented, disheveled and distraught, she mumbles to herself how her life has crumbled in less than twenty-four hours, and the image dissolves, pulling us back into the past. A provocative student Bill Perry (Douglas Dick) has developed something more than a crush on the professor yet instead of sticking to her guns professionally and passing the matter on to the dean she not only accepts a ride home from this guy (she’d missed her bus), but ends up sharing a meal with him and then a detour to the cliffs above the ocean. Here Perry assaults her and, in an effort to defend herself, Wilma Tuttle bludgeons her assailant to death. Those rotten choices keep on coming: rather than do the sensible thing and report the incident, she tries to cover it up, to fake a fall and subsequent drowning, and of course make it look as though she’d never been near the spot in question. At first, it seems she may get away with it, the inquest returns a verdict of accidental death after all. However, Perry’s dissatisfied guardian San Fracisco lawyer Warren Ford (Robert Cummings) has his doubts, as does the doggedly persistent Lieutenant Dorgan (Wendell Corey). While the net of suspicion draws inexorably tighter, Wilma allows her attraction to Ford to develop into a full-on romance, a situation requiring more delicate decisions to be taken by all concerned.

Having generally enjoyed Red Mountain, I find I’m on a bit of a William Dieterle kick just now. I liked his handling of the western setting but I think it’s fair to say that The Accused, with its dark melodama and a script by Ketti Frings (Foxfire) represented more comfortable territory. The pacing is well judged, hooking the viewer right away and adding developments and complications in sufficient numbers and at appropriate intervals to keep the tension simmering without allowing it to boil over or become unnecessarily confusing. In terms of visuals, Milton Krasner’s cinematography switches smoothly between the brighly lit outdoor scenes where all feels well and the characters are correspondingly open and moodily rendered interiors where ambiguity makes its home. There is also a strong emphasis on mirrors and reflections throughout; this particular motif shows up time and again and alludes to the differing images presented by the characters – the faces they present to the world and those they present to themselves. As a result, there is a constant sense of duality and even duplicity as none of the principals fully reveal themselves to others.

Apparently, The Accused was originally planned as a vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck. Now, anyone who has spent any time browsing this site will know that I hold Stanwyck in the highest regard, I’ve always liked her work and admire her versatility. However, the role of Wilma Tuttle called for someone who could convincingly portray a woman whose judgement is almost perpetually in question, whose vulnerability will constantly overide her intelligence. I can’t see Stanwyck pulling that off successfully, there was forever a sense of resourcefulness just beneath the surface that would have made it a tough sell. In contrast, Loretta Young had that doe-eyed trustfulness about her, so somehow it doesn’t feel like such a leap to see her repeatedly taking the wrong turn.

Robert Cummings gets the slick likeability of his part across well. He’s smooth and polished, sure of himself and solid enough to provide an emotional crutch for Young. He comes into his own particularly in the third act when, in the wake of a well staged and shot boxing bout which reveals much, he confronts and accepts the truth and really grows in stature. Wendell Corey’s cop is fine too. There’s a trace of cynicism which feels right for a man in his position and he also does  good line in self-awareness, a smidgen of doomed romanticism sharing space with a barely concealed dissatisfaction with the kind of things his job forces him to do. In support Douglas Dick is creepily effective as the victim, while Sam Jaffe is just about what you expect a forensic scientist ought to look and behave like. Finally, both Sara Allgood and Mickey Knox make brief but very welcome appearances.

The Accused was released in the US as part of the Universal Vault MOD prorgram, and it can be found in various European countries too, looking OK but showing room for improvement.  I understand it’s due a Blu-ray upgrade via Kino in the near future so that might be worth bearing in mind. This is the kind of noir melodrama I generally respond to, it’s well cast, stylishly directed and smartly written. What’s not to like?

Red Mountain

One of the reasons I started this site many years ago was the opportunity it afforded me to write on and maybe draw some attention to movies (many of which happened to be westerns) that appeared to  have slipped between the cracks and drifted into relative obscurity. That wasn’t the only reason of course, but it was certainly a signficant one. Over time I’ve tried to broaden my base and mix up my content in a way that pleases me and, I hope, engages and attracts a wide range of visitors. Red Mountain (1951) could be seen as a return to my blogging roots in a sense as it is the type of movie I had in mind at the outset, a western with a big name star and directed by a well regarded filmmaker, with some equally impressive names among the crew, but one which rarely gets mentioned.

This is a fanciful tale, one likely to drive the history buffs crazy as it plays fast and loose with historical facts. However, we’re talking about movies here, where artistic license should be granted and where minor matters such as accuracy and fidelity to the known facts are of no more than incidental interest. It opens well, with a faceless killer shooting down an assayer in the town of Broken Bow, the assailant recognizable only by the spurs on his boots. It would seem likely at this stage that we would see a tale focusing on the hunt for this anonymous gunman, and that does appear to be the direction we’re headed in, not least when an innocent man is accused and a vengeful posse summoned. That innocent man is Lane Waldron (Arthur Kennedy), one on whom suspicion is heaped not only because he had been seen in the vicinity but largely because he was once a soldier of the Confederacy and these are the dying days of the Civil War. The townsmen all regard him as a potential traitor and are only too willing to set out with the aim of lynching this interloper. Indeed he comes within a hair’s breadth of this fate but is spared when Brett Sherwood (Alan Ladd) breaks up the party and rescues the happless Waldron. Sherwood is the real killer of the assayer – this is only confirmed right at the end of the movie but it’s acknowledged quite early on in proceedings – and his feelings of guilt and responsibility for Waldron, and later some stronger feelings for the latter’s woman Chris (Lizabeth Scott), drive the plot. All of this is intensified when the infamous Quantrill (John Ireland) comes on the scene. The notorious guerilla leader is in the process of stirring up unrest among the Indian tribes, starting with the Utes, with the aim of opening a new front in the west, one with the potential to derail the Union march towards victory.

One doesn’t think of German director William Dieterle as a natural for  westerns. That said, there’s no earthly reason why we should exclude someone like this – the beauty of the western as a genre is its malleability and the kind of inclusiveness it bred among filmmakers where so many diverse types were able to make strong and successful contributions. That Old West setting was the ideal backdrop for so many tales, a largely untouched landscape invested with enough opportunity and presenting so many physial and ethical challenges that almost any human drama was enhanced when it played out there. Dieterle (who apparently was replaced for a time by an uncredited John Farrow due to ill health) uses the New Mexico locations well, presenting a similar view to that pioneered by John Ford with the vast and imposing natural features framing the conflicts dramatically and simultaneously suggesting their relative lack of consequence in the grand scheme – those towering hills and cliffs and endless horizons prevail and gaze impassively on the petty squabbles acted out in the their shadows and dwarfed by their permanence. Charles Lang’s cinematography makes the most of the natural beauty and is equally effective in the numerous night time shots. The driving and powerful (perhaps occasionally overpowering) score by Franz Waxman adds urgency and also complements some of the grimmer moments in the film.

Red Mountain was the third western for Alan Ladd, following on successfully from Whispering Smith and Branded and paving the way for his signature role in the timeless Shane. While I’m not entirely convinced by some of the writing and characterization in this film, I can’t say that any of that affects the quality of the performances. Ladd’s star was still in the ascendency at this point and he was tremendously good at tapping into the growing uncertainty of his character; there’s a touch of ambiguity there too but it’s the burgeoning sense of unease at the path chosen, the war raging within his own soul, which impresses most.

In contrast, Lizabeth Scott’s career had already peaked and  a few years later any chance of reviving it would be torpedoed by the disgraceful actions of Confidential magazine. She handles her part as the embittered victim of Quantrill’s razing of Lawrence, Kansas with assurance. She is sometimes regarded as a film noir actress first and foremost, and she has some stellar credits in that genre to back that view up, but her work in this film and Silver Lode is just fine as far as I am concerned. Arthur Kennedy fades a little as the story develops, a strong start sees him squaring off against Ladd but his character’s injury sees him sidelined to some extent and the writing I mentioned above does him no favors. John Ireland’s Quantrill offers an interesting study in fanaticism. I particularly appreciated the actors physicality here, using a kind of stiff discomfort to great effect, suggesting a man aware of his own unhinged nature and struggling with some moral straitjacket of his own design. There are also welcome if limited supporting roles for Whit Bissell, Neville Brand and Jeff Corey.

I’m not sure if Red Mountain has received an official release anywhere, which is a pity as the movie has a good deal to recommend it. It represents a strong entry in the filmography of Alan Ladd as he was building his credentials as a western hero and it also adds another layer to the Hollywood work of William Dieterle. Frankly, it’s the kind of film that would look just dandy on Blu-ray if it were given a bit of a clean up. I’d like to think that might happen one day.

The Turning Point

Organized crime, corruption and graft became increasingly common features of film noir as it moved into the 1950s. Those unattractive yet perennial problems seemed even less savory in a world just beginning to find its equilibrium again after the trauma and devastation of the war years. The desire to root out such rottenness, particularly after so many had sacrificed so much in pursuit of something finer, had the potential to provide powerful drama. Still, alongside this, it has to be acknowledged that there was a correspondingly strong chance of any movie going down this route declining into a dry, or even pompous, affair. The surest way to combat that unwelcome effect was to ramp up the human interest, to emphasize the personal angle while holding the preaching in check as far as possible. The Turning Point (1952) represents a broadly successful attempt to ensure this balance is achieved.

There is an especially nasty flavor to organized crime. It dresses itself up in a sneer, celebrates its own conceit and smirks at its own soullessness. It’s a crime without passion, an offense keen to court glamor yet one which leaves behind huge numbers of victims as it swaggers nonchalantly towards the next big score.  The Turning Point clearly acknowledges this as it follows prosecutor John Conroy (Edmond O’Brien) on his crusade against the mob in an unidentified Mid-West city (despite the fact the location work makes it abundantly clear the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Superficially, there’s nothing new here and one might be forgiven for expecting another straightforward racket-busters yarn. However, there are elements introduced that muddy the ethical waters somewhat and thus raise the bar a few notches. To begin, there’s Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), the newspaperman whose friendship with Conroy will be tested both by his own inherent cynicism and his growing attraction to his friend’s girl (Alexis Smith). There’s the makings of an interesting moral dilemma shaping up there, but all this is somewhat overshadowed (although one could argue it’s also complemented) by the fact Conroy’s policeman father (Tom Tully) has secretly been in the pocket of the mob boss for some time.

As I alluded to above, films based around the mob and/or those tasked with taking them down can become wearisome in their predictability. There’s a tendency perhaps to focus on the  tough cool of the knowing gangster, the high-living wiseguy who’s got society’s number and plays it mercilessly. Either that or the audience is placed in the shoes of the straight arrow agents of the law, and all the grey sanctimony that inevitably follows in the wake of that approach. There’s something refreshing about the way The Turning Point enthusiastically embraces the flaws in human nature – the use of the source material by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) can’t have hurt.  Nor can the smooth and sensitive direction of William Dieterle, yet another of those who brought their European filmmaking sensibility with them and thus enriched Hollywood in the studio era.

Good casting goes a long way, in my opinion. Both Holden and O’Brien play to their strengths, the latter projecting businesslike  solidity, while the former exudes worldly (indeed world-weary) charm. Crucially, neither one overcooks it or allows it to slide towards parody. Alexis Smith was both capable and beautiful, working on a number of good movies over the years but maybe too many middling ones kept her star from rising as high as it could have. Tom Tully had the pivotal of the compromised cop, one that needed to  be written and performed well if the story was to retain its credibility. Happily, both the actor and the writers seem to have grasped this fact and the emotional core holds up as a result. Good villains are also essential in such tales, and small but memorable appearances from Ted de Corsia, Neville Brand and Carolyn Jones help things along. Ed Begley, a champion of bluster and indignation, does well as the crime boss; the scene where he calmly orders the firebombing of an entire building just to protect his interests is chilling in its calculation, and also heartbreaking in the dispassionately filmed aftermath.

A fair bit time has been taken up on this site bemoaning the lack of attention given to certain Universal-International tiles. The same can certainly be said of Paramount material – while a fair bit has leaked out over the years, plenty more remains either unavailable for viewing or  only exists in inferior form. This is true of The Turning Point, a film which was once announced for release on Blu-ray but then pulled as the elements were said to be sub-standard. At present, there are DVDs to be had from Spain and Italy but the transfers are pretty weak by all accounts, and I have a hunch they may not advance much, if anything, on what can be found quite easily online. A pity really, and it would be great if a more visually appealing version could be found and put on the market.