Rope of Sand (1949)

Synopsis:

A former safari guide (Burt Lancaster, The Killers) returns to the small mining town in South Africa where he was accused of stealing diamonds years ago.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Nothing of value is gained easily.”

Not long ago, I came across an old interview where actor Burt Lancaster stated without hesitation that Rope of Sand was the least favorite of his films. “I hate it,” Lancaster added surlily. That, of course, got me really curious. After watching the film, I agree with Mr. Lancaster that Rope of Sand isn’t something you proudly display on your resume. However, the movie isn’t as bad as the actor made it out to be.

Rope of Sand does feel like a poor man’s Casablanca (1942). Screenwriter Walter Doniger (Along the Great Divide) later admitted that he wanted to pay homage to the 1942 classic. When he sold the screenplay to producer Hal B. Wallis (ironically, Wallis produced Casablanca for Warner Bros.), Doniger even asked Wallis to hire Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to play the lead roles.

Looking for ways to save money, Wallis decided instead to go with contract player Lancaster and newcomer Corinne Calvet (The Far Country). However, Wallis did hire three Casablanca actors: Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Paul Henreid. As it turns out, Rains and Lorre are practically reprising their roles from the 1942 classic. Rains is a cynical power player while Lorre is the hero’s shady friend.

Henreid, on the other hand, is playing the exact opposite of his iconic role of Victor Laszlo. The Austrian actor plays Rains’s psycho enforcer. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Is this the same person who demanded the orchestra play La Marseillaise in Casablanca and made whoopie to Bette Davis in Now, Voyager? Henreid is a surprisingly scary villain. I have underestimated him and won’t make the same mistake again.

Lancaster is just okay. There is nothing wrong with his performance. Lancaster coasts on his considerable charm as he is forced to play an underdeveloped character. Corinne Calvet plays a femme fatale wannabe. She is an obviously gorgeous-looking woman, but the character doesn’t make much sense. In addition, I didn’t buy the romance between Lancaster and Calvet — the actors don’t have any chemistry.

That being said, I won’t blame any of the actors for the film’s flaws. Director William Dieterle (The Life of Emile Zola) can’t be blamed either — he did a fine job establishing an alluring noir atmosphere. The music score by Franz Waxman (Rebecca) is good too. I also found Charle Lang’s (Some Like it Hot) cinematography very stylish. The truth of the matter is that Doniger’s script (shockingly, it received a Golden Globe nomination) is solely responsible for the film not being able to reach greatness.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Though neither Burt Lancaster nor I liked Rope of Sand much, it doesn’t mean that you have to skip it. Apparently, we are in the minority. Most critics praised the film, and it was a big hit with audiences. Plus, I can’t completely reject a movie with such a fabulous supporting cast — it’s always fun to see Claude Rains steal scenes and Paul Henreid’s Conrad Veidt imitation is fun to watch. B&W, 104 minutes, Not Rated.

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