DVD Tuesday: Rope of Sand (1949)

Olive Films continues to raid the Paramount vaults, this time with William Dieterle’s 1949 Casablanca clone Rope of Sand. Released on April 5th, along with Edward Dmytryk’s The Mountain (1956), it’s another strong DVD presentation from the company. The spotless print is presented in a progressive transfer that showcases the inky blacks of cinematographer Charles Lang. Producer Hal B. Wallis left Warner Brothers in 1944 to form his own production company, Wallis-Hazen, and was eager to recreate his biggest hit for his new distributor Paramount. He bought Walter Doniger’s Casablanca-esque script and wrangled three of that film’s actors: Paul Lorre, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains. The leads were given to Burt Lancaster, who was under contract to Wallis, and Corinne Calvet, a French siren the producer hoped to mold into the next Ingrid Bergman. The result is a prickly bit of entertainment, a threadbare and more nihilistic version of its model.

There is much less at stake in Walter Doniger’s screenplay. In Casablanca Bogart wrestles with aiding the French Resistance, and in Rope of Sand Burt Lancaster is trying to steal a cache of diamonds from a South African mine. Lancaster plays Mike Adams, a former hunting guide turned depressive. A few years back one of his clients wandered off onto the protected area of the mine, hoping to strike it rich. He succeeded in in finding a rich vein of jewels, but dies of dehydration. Davis is then caught by the mine’s security force, led by Paul Henreid’s Commandant Vogel. Vogel tries to beat the location of these diamonds out of him, but to no avail. Stripped of his license, and unable to obtain a passport, Davis is a man adrift. He returns to the mine to rip off the diamond load and get his revenge on Vogel. Claude Rains plays Arther Martingale, a mine functionary who plays both sides off each other, with the help of Corinne Calvet as the ambitious prostitute Suzanne Renaud.

Davis is a stridently unlikeable character: selfish, brutish and a little dense. Lancaster was evidently unhappy with the production, as his biographer Kate Buford reported that it was “he one he would remember as the worst movie in which he ever appeared.” Eager to play out the string of his Wallis contract, he gives Adams a cold, dumb brutality that hedges against the threat of audience identification. There are no anti-heroics here, just a profoundly unconvincing happy ending.

Director William Dieterle and cinematographer Lang follow Casablanca‘s visual template, of cluttered baroque interiors and roving tracking shots inside bustling nightclubs. Lang uses lower light than the earlier film, perhaps compensating for the lack of background activity. While Casablanca has an expressive face sitting on every barstool, the world of Rope of Sand is relatively de-populated. Peter Lorre, who crawls into the film as a philosophizing fence, enters an empty frame. With less to explore, Dieterle’s camera movements are adumbrated compared to Curtiz’s long traveling shots down the bar. What Dieterle emphasizes instead are power relations, mainly expressed through a simple but effective method of blocking his actors along with alternating camera angles.

When Mike Davis returns to South Africa on a freighter, Vogel is there to meet him with plum-voiced taunts. Davis is physically restrained by a pair of strapping deck hands, as Vogel looks imperiously downward. The camera peeks down at Davis, and upward at Vogel, quickly sketching their respective positions in the narrative. By the end, they are framed on equally level angles as their fortunes meet in the middle. Dieterle’s framing of Corinne Calvet undergoes a similar shift, tracking her transformation from a tool of Martingale’s to a woman who asserts her will.

The image that top-lines this post shows Calvert posing for Claude Rains, an erotic puppet that he’ll use to arouse the jealousies of Henreid and Lancaster. This becomes visualized in a poker game, before which Rains whispers devious nothings into Calvert’s ear. When she sits down, Rains is placed behind and to the right of her, his mouth still in visual range of her ear. Then the camera slowly dollies forward, and Calvet moves her head to the right, obscuring Rains’ face – the puppeteer lost in his art. Then there is a cut to Lancaster, with empty space around him – the only man outside of all human entanglement.

The controlling imagery surrounding Calvet continues when she goes home with Henreid, who pins her in-between two hanging canvas frames. She is a decoration to Henreid’s narcissistic martinet, window dressing to his tin-horn dictatorship. Little does he know that she’s under Rains’ employ, or that she is rapidly falling in love with the brusque Lancaster, for reasons that remain obscure aside from narrative necessity. By the end of the film the imagery of control and display fall away in Calvet’s scenes, and she shares equal screen space with Lancaster.

With thoughtful little stylistic strategies like these, Dieterle is able to lift his second-run scenario into something with a semblance of vitality. And thanks to the shit-eating grin of a performance by Claude Rains, as well as the reliably creepy work by Peter Lorre, Rope of Sand pulls itself together to be a diverting shadow of Casablanca.

 

12 Responses DVD Tuesday: Rope of Sand (1949)
Posted By Dolores Sweeney : April 12, 2011 5:58 pm

Movies make everyday life possible to endure!!!!!!! I hope to see this one soon.

Posted By Dolores Sweeney : April 12, 2011 5:58 pm

Movies make everyday life possible to endure!!!!!!! I hope to see this one soon.

Posted By Rick K. : April 13, 2011 7:38 am

Outside of recruiting Rains, Lorre and Henreid (and giving Rains the best dialogue) there r-e-a-l-l-y isn’t much of a correlation with CASABLANCA, and the photographic style is quite different, despite the Germanic predilections of both Dieterle and Curtiz. Not a bad film, but I think Dmytryk’s THE MOUNTAIN is much more worthy of praise, though surprisingly dismissed by many a reviewer as overly simplistic … well, maybe it is, but the visuals, use of locations and integration of studio work, are mostly superb … I nearly always believed that the autumnal Tracy was actually scaling those precarious cliffs. And how great to see it in VistaVision!

Posted By Rick K. : April 13, 2011 7:38 am

Outside of recruiting Rains, Lorre and Henreid (and giving Rains the best dialogue) there r-e-a-l-l-y isn’t much of a correlation with CASABLANCA, and the photographic style is quite different, despite the Germanic predilections of both Dieterle and Curtiz. Not a bad film, but I think Dmytryk’s THE MOUNTAIN is much more worthy of praise, though surprisingly dismissed by many a reviewer as overly simplistic … well, maybe it is, but the visuals, use of locations and integration of studio work, are mostly superb … I nearly always believed that the autumnal Tracy was actually scaling those precarious cliffs. And how great to see it in VistaVision!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : April 13, 2011 9:52 am

Rick, I would disagree with you on the lack of similarities. Both are set in an insular community of international exiles and cynics running away (or toward) their past in an exotic foreign city. The three re-cast actors play thiny veiled variations on their CASABLANCA roles. The screenwriter Walter Doniger is interviewed in Stephen D. Youngkin’s Peter Lorre bio, and he said, “I was attempting to write a script that would be a character melodrama in the tradition of CASABLANCA.”

I would agree that there are major stylistic differences, though, which I tried to sketch out in the post. Curtiz uses a more mobile camera, and ROPE OF SAND uses more low-light photography, pushing it into noir territory.

I didn’t have time for THE MOUNTAIN this week, but your description makes it sound interesting. I might pop it in for next week.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : April 13, 2011 9:52 am

Rick, I would disagree with you on the lack of similarities. Both are set in an insular community of international exiles and cynics running away (or toward) their past in an exotic foreign city. The three re-cast actors play thiny veiled variations on their CASABLANCA roles. The screenwriter Walter Doniger is interviewed in Stephen D. Youngkin’s Peter Lorre bio, and he said, “I was attempting to write a script that would be a character melodrama in the tradition of CASABLANCA.”

I would agree that there are major stylistic differences, though, which I tried to sketch out in the post. Curtiz uses a more mobile camera, and ROPE OF SAND uses more low-light photography, pushing it into noir territory.

I didn’t have time for THE MOUNTAIN this week, but your description makes it sound interesting. I might pop it in for next week.

Posted By muriel : April 13, 2011 12:17 pm

Gosh, I wouldn’t have analysed the movie so much as the reviewer and some comments. It’s great entertainment and I look forward to seeing it again in a crisp print. I agree with commenter Dolores that “Movies make everyday life possible to endure.” Specifically, old black and white movies!

Posted By muriel : April 13, 2011 12:17 pm

Gosh, I wouldn’t have analysed the movie so much as the reviewer and some comments. It’s great entertainment and I look forward to seeing it again in a crisp print. I agree with commenter Dolores that “Movies make everyday life possible to endure.” Specifically, old black and white movies!

Posted By Rick K. : April 13, 2011 7:17 pm

Monsieur Sweeney, (guess you can call me Monsieur Rick), always enjoy catching your posts … thanks for the reply.

I came upon your critique after just watching the two Olive releases, and guess my immediate response was due to the fact that, in spite of the casting, the film at no time evoked CASABLANCA for me while the film was unfolding, so my write was merely an intuitive (albeit genuine) response. I found no glamour or real exoticism in the ROPE OF SAND setting (eg. Henreid’s elegant pad merely a facade for the ugliness of his character), elements which were certainly scrupulously fused in the Casablanca locale. Perhaps for that reason, I WAS reminded of STRANGE CARGO (also sharing a Lorre credit), though again a tenuous correlation. And too, emotional tensions so essential to the success of CASABLANCA were, in ROPE OF SAND, completely different (a revenge drama), and rather contrived and superficial at best. If indeed it was conceived with CASABLANCA as a model, it must be in the eye of the beholder (Rains’ acidic observer notwithstanding), but I believe the Marx Brothers actually succeeded more successfully, despite Groucho’s refuting the charge … “any resemblance between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo is purely coincidental” (paraphrase).

CASABLANCA was certainly influential, but far more difficult to emulate than, say THE MALTESE FALCON. Take a look at THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN (Columbia/Lothar Mendes, 1946) or THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN HAWKS (MGM/Richard Thorpe, 1959, sometimes on TCM) for some of the most blatant (unofficial) Hollywood cribbing of former successes.

Posted By Rick K. : April 13, 2011 7:17 pm

Monsieur Sweeney, (guess you can call me Monsieur Rick), always enjoy catching your posts … thanks for the reply.

I came upon your critique after just watching the two Olive releases, and guess my immediate response was due to the fact that, in spite of the casting, the film at no time evoked CASABLANCA for me while the film was unfolding, so my write was merely an intuitive (albeit genuine) response. I found no glamour or real exoticism in the ROPE OF SAND setting (eg. Henreid’s elegant pad merely a facade for the ugliness of his character), elements which were certainly scrupulously fused in the Casablanca locale. Perhaps for that reason, I WAS reminded of STRANGE CARGO (also sharing a Lorre credit), though again a tenuous correlation. And too, emotional tensions so essential to the success of CASABLANCA were, in ROPE OF SAND, completely different (a revenge drama), and rather contrived and superficial at best. If indeed it was conceived with CASABLANCA as a model, it must be in the eye of the beholder (Rains’ acidic observer notwithstanding), but I believe the Marx Brothers actually succeeded more successfully, despite Groucho’s refuting the charge … “any resemblance between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo is purely coincidental” (paraphrase).

CASABLANCA was certainly influential, but far more difficult to emulate than, say THE MALTESE FALCON. Take a look at THE WALLS CAME TUMBLING DOWN (Columbia/Lothar Mendes, 1946) or THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN HAWKS (MGM/Richard Thorpe, 1959, sometimes on TCM) for some of the most blatant (unofficial) Hollywood cribbing of former successes.

Posted By Vincent : April 14, 2011 9:07 pm

I believe “Rope Of Sand” was adapted for the last-ever episode of “Lux Radio Theater” in the spring of 1955. By then, “Lux” had been on for two decades and had returned to its initial home of NBC. In its final two or three seasons, it eschewed a live audience (which may have been faked for effect).

Posted By Vincent : April 14, 2011 9:07 pm

I believe “Rope Of Sand” was adapted for the last-ever episode of “Lux Radio Theater” in the spring of 1955. By then, “Lux” had been on for two decades and had returned to its initial home of NBC. In its final two or three seasons, it eschewed a live audience (which may have been faked for effect).

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