Rope of Sand (1949)

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Burt Lancaster battles it out with Paul Henreid in a tale of diamonds and dust!
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US / 104 minutes / bw / Wallis–Hazen, Paramount Dir: William Dieterle Pr: Hal B. Wallis Scr: Walter Doniger, John Paxton Story: Walter Doniger Cine: Charles B. Lang Jr Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Corinne Calvet, Sam Jaffe, John Bromfield, Mike Mazurki, Kenny Washington, Edmond Breon, Hayden Rorke, David Thursby, Josef Marais, Miranda (i.e., Miranda Marais).

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Welcome to Diamondstadt, headquarters of the Colonial Diamond Co. Ltd:

“This part of the desert of South Africa, where only a parched camelthorn tree relieves the endless parallels of time, space and sky, surrounds like a rope of sand the richest diamond-bearing area in the world—an uneasy land where men enflamed by monotony and the heat sometimes forget the rules of civilization.”

The place is run like a fascist state in miniature—complete with torture chamber—by its sadistic police chief, Commandant Paul G. Vogel (Henreid), and his thugs. Vogel’s primary task is to ensure that no one strays into the Prohibited Area, a region of desert where sometimes clusters of diamonds can be found mere inches beneath the surface of the sand.

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Total bastard Vogel (Paul Henreid) rules his little fiefdom with an iron fist.

It’s here that Mike Davis (Lancaster) returns after an absence of two years. Almost from the moment of his arrival it’s clear he has a bitter past in Diamondstadt . . . and a bitter past with the loathsome Vogel. When Mike refuses to be intimidated at the docks by Vogel, the police chief deliberately engineers an “accident,” so that a derrick’s worth of stuff falls—not on Mike, because that could cause problems, but glancingly on the leg of a sailor, John (Washington). Mike tends John’s wounds and sends him off to see Diamondstadt’s physician, Dr. Francis Kitteridge Hunter (Jaffe), who’s more or less permanently inebriated but remains competent.

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As Mike (Burt Lancaster, right) tends the wounds of John (Kenny Washington), the two men become fast friends.

Vogel’s boss is a man called Martingale (Rains); he’s listed as Arthur Martingale in the closing credits but in fact called Fred throughout the movie. The two work together and on the surface are allies, but in fact there’s no love lost between them, as we witness when Martingale covertly blackballs Vogel from membership of the snooty Perseus Club in Cape Town. Also in Cape Town, Martingale is picked up by Suzanne Renaud (Calvet), supposedly the French niece of a Colonial Diamond Co. stockholder but in fact a scammer whose trick is to inveigle herself into the rooms of married men and then threaten to accuse them of sexual impropriety.

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Suzanne (Corinne Calvet) casts an alluring glance Martingale’s way.

Martingale, having been informed of Mike’s return to Diamondstadt, calls Suzanne’s bluff—aside from anything else, he isn’t married—but then offers her a job. The reason there’s bad blood between Mike and Vogel is that Mike knows of a stash of raw diamonds; the last time Mike was in Diamondstadt, Vogel beat him almost to death in an attempt to make him divulge the location of that stash, but Mike kept his silence. Martingale, on behalf of the company, would like those diamonds too. Surely the lovely Frenchwoman could, ’ow you say, extract the information from Mike by ’otness and allure where any number of beatings by Vogel would fail?

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A plan is concocted between Suzanne (Corinne Calvet) and Martingale (Claude Rains).

We’re told the story of those diamonds twice, once when a disreputable Diamondstadt type called Toady (Lorre) tells it to Mike in a rather arch, pseudo-hypothetical manner, and much later, in more detail, in a flashback when Mike tells it to Suzanne. Mike was guiding a big game hunter called Ingram (Rorke) when the latter became intoxicated by the idea of all those diamonds lying around in the Prohibited Area. Ingram ran off greedily into the desert; Mike pursued him and, in the course of saving his life, discovered the diamonds.

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Toady (Peter Lorre) always has a scheme with which to tempt Mike (Burt Lancaster).

Vogel is quite obvious smitten by Suzanne the moment he claps eyes on her. Suzanne (who’s so overwhelmingly French, almost to an Inspector Clouseau level, that you assume Calvet must be an American or British actress, though in actuality she was, yes, French—has an idea. Rather than simply entice Mike, she’ll set Mike and Vogel at loggerheads by encouraging both of them. Martingale, delighted by the idea, organizes a poker game between the two, even funding Mike to the tune of £750.

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The poker game.

Mike loses it all, but afterwards he discovers Vogel was marking the cards. He charges off to Vogel’s magnificent house, where the man has taken Suzanne and is, just prior to Mike’s appearance, telling her the tale of how he acquired a particular rare and splendid vase. Apparently the owner, a Frenchman, refused point blank to sell, but then in 1939 the owner’s sister was seized in Nazi Germany:

Vogel: “So, I made my bid.”
Suzanne: “And he had to accept.”
Vogel: “It was a bargain.”

Vogel wants to marry her so she can share this mansion with him. Mike bursts in just in time to save her from a fate worse than death, and from that moment onward, no matter what her contract is with Martingale, her allegiance lies with Mike. The trouble is that Mike, though powerfully attracted, knows enough of her character that he’s still suspicious of her.

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A clinch in the desert.

He wants those diamonds—“The pain [of Vogel’s torture] won’t leave until I get what I already paid for”—and has enlisted the help of John, the dockworker whom Vogel injured. He also buys the cooperation of one of Vogel’s cops, Thompson (Bromfield). But Thompson cracks easily under the threat of a beating, revealing Mike’s plans to Vogel. The stage is set for one or other of the two rivals to die; the question is, which of them will survive this fateful night?

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Threatened with a beating, Thompson (John Bromfield) rats on Mike.

The answer is that they both do—that it’ll be someone else who meets a violent end . . .

There’s quite a lot more plot to go, including the emergence of Toady from a peripheral role to a more important one; as I’m a big Peter Lorre fan, this was much applauded hereabouts. (I’m also something of a Mike Mazurki fan, but his turn—as a worker called Pierson who attempts to smuggle out a raw diamond hidden in an arm wound—is perhaps thirty seconds long, if that.) The plot—filled with action and adventure—would be gripping anyway, but it’s made even more so by the fact that, all the while that Mike’s suspecting Suzanne’s motives, even believing that she’s betrayed him to Vogel, we as audience know she’s perfectly sincere. This “cheap Cape Town trollop” really does love Mike, she really does loathe Vogel:

Suzanne: “Mike Davis was right. You are a pig.”
Vogel: “Your friend Davis won’t have the chance to teach you any new names to call me.”

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The movie isn’t quite film noir but it’s very close to it, certainly noirish enough that I should probably include it in any future edition of A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir. It’s directed with pace, and benefits from Charles Lang’s excellent cinematography—especially in the desertscapes and in the use of light and shadow—and a cracking score from Franz Waxman. Rains, Lorre and Lancaster give exactly the performances you’d expect from them—they’re really not stretched at all, but that’s fine by me—while Henreid, generally not a favorite actor of mine, is very good here: he delivers a splendid portrayal of loathsomeness in the character of the fascistic, narcissistic sexual predator who has made Diamondstadt his personal fiefdom.

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Suzanne (Corinne Calvet) pleads with . . .

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. . . Mike (Burt Lancaster) not to fall into Vogel’s trap.

Corinne Calvet, whose rendition of Suzanne Renaud I found absolutely charming, appeared in a couple of other movies of tangential noirish interest: BLUEBEARD’S TEN HONEYMOONS (1960) and BONNES À TUER (1954; vt Quattro Donne nella Notte; vt Ripe for Killing; vt One Step to Eternity). According to IMDB she trained in France as a lawyer and then as an interior designer before taking to the stage and being discovered by Hal Wallis, who brought her Stateside to Paramount. Rope of Sand was her first Paramount movie—she’d earlier had minor parts in a few movies in France. John Bromfield, who plays Thompson here, was the first of her four husbands.

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Doc Hunter (Sam Jaffe) patches Mike (Burt Lancaster) up.

Another interesting cast member is Kenny Washington, who plays Mike’s pal John. According to Wikipedia—which fails to mention his movie career—he was the first African–American professional football player “to sign a contract with a National Football League team in the modern (post-World War II) era.” Later a supporter and personal friend of Richard Nixon, he retired from football in 1948.

At one stage in Rope of Sand Mike searches Suzanne’s hotel room and discovers her passport, which bears the name Anisenelette Durigneaud rather than Suzanne Renaud. Even before then, I’d started expecting a particular plot revelation for the movie’s denouement—that, far from being just some “cheap Cape Town trollop,” Suzanne/Anisenelette is related to the owners of that vase and is here in quest of revenge. In fact, that plot twist never comes. The pointer to it, though, is so clear that my guess is it was in an earlier draft but was cut from the shooting script. If you watch or have watched the movie, I’d be interested to know if you have the same impression.

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13 thoughts on “Rope of Sand (1949)

  1. Yes I’ve seen this one, and actually as a film score connoisseur remember Waxman’s contribution quite well. lang’s black and white camerawork is excellent, and yes not quite noir. Great review here John, hung with every word!

    • The movie hasn’t entirely slipped off the radar, but I think it’s surprising it’s so relatively unknown . . . especially bearing in mind the cast. I found it had a lot to offer.

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