Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Review: Rope of Sand (1949)

    It’s a Bogie movie, without Bogie.

    What’s immediately apparent about William Dieterle’s 1949 film is that it desperately wants to be Casablanca - so much so that it borrows three of that film’s major players in Peter Lorre, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid. Indeed, producer Hal Wallis was eager for a repeat of that seminal film, as he originally had Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in mind for the romantic leads. Those two proved unavailable, but the Casablanca influence is all over Rope of Sand - I wouldn’t call it the poor man’s version, but that’s not too far off either. But even though the film never comes close to Bogie’s classic, a whip-smart script, a fine cast and some solid direction result in a fairly solid little movie. I know, I know… Crazy talk, right? A good script and cast and director resulting in an actual good movie. Who knew…

    Burt Lancaster plays Mike Davis, a big game hunter who inadvertently stumbles across a rich deposit of diamonds on restricted land in Africa owned by a diamond company. The company’s considerable security staff captures Davis, where he’s brutally interrogated by the sadistic chief Vogel, played by Paul Henreid. Davis never cracked, so the company let him go. Two years pass, and now Davis is back in Africa - presumably to take the diamonds. The company manager Martingale (Claude Rains) arrives to handle the matter, bringing along with him the feisty Suzanne (Corrine Calvet) to woo Davis into giving up his secret. 

    Lancaster isn’t Bogart, but I’m not sure the character of Davis would have been quite the same without him. Besides bringing just the right tone to his performance here, Lancaster has a very natural likability about him - a wholly different vibe from Rick Blaine, and further distancing the film from the “poor-man’s” Casablanca label. Lancaster himself wasn’t very fond of the film, calling it his least favorite out of all the projects he worked on throughout his career. Whatever discomfort or displeasure the role may have caused him doesn’t show through, however, as he shows a pretty great command of the screen still fairly early on in his career - proving that he could do this “movie star” thing in his sleep.

    The rest of the cast is also suitably fantastic. Paul Henreid is deliciously sadistic as Vogel, an utter creep who’s just pathetic enough you still kind of feel sorry for him - mainly due to the fact he’ll never be as cool as Burt Lancaster. Claude Rains is equally delightful as Vogel’s boss Martingale, a slippery eel of a character who changes sides as it is convenient to him. He arrives on the company land to get Davis’ secrets out of him, but has so much disdain for his underling Vogel that he also enjoys playing the beautiful Suzanne off of the two of them. Corrine Calvet makes her acting debut, and holds her own well against her more experienced costars. Her relationship with Davis hardly reaches Rick and Ilsa levels, but the actress has a nice fiery presence throughout. And Peter Lorre appears in only a handful of scenes as a rogue diamond smuggler, but what little screen-time he gets here reminds us all why he was the go-to toady for years (his name in the film is actually Toady).

    Bringing all of these elements together in a noirish, lustful adventure setting provides director William Deiterle with ample room to play around with the conventions of the day. Dieterle was one of those journeymen directors like Robert Aldrich or Jacques Tourneur; seemingly adept at whatever genre the studio threw at him, as long as the script was there. It’s the backbone of every movie, that script thing. Moviemakers these days probably don’t even know what an actual script is anymore, as blockbuster film after blockbuster film are rushed into production without a shooting script in sight. It’s kind of sad that a ripoff of Casablanca in those days is better than a lot of the tent-poles studios shit out into theaters now with each passing year.

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