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Rope of Sand (DVD Review)

4 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/5/11
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Burt Lancaster, Corinne Calvet, Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre.

The Rains-Henreid-Lorre Casablanca connection doesn’t exactly hurt this 1949 Hal Wallis action potboiler set in the opposite end of Africa, but only the Burt Lancaster character’s generous gesture at the very end to a few helping hands has much to do with its screen predecessor’s celebration of valor. Essentially, this is a movie about the revenge Lancaster exacts for past beatings and even a flogging. And the latter is among the more memorable ones in a non-seafaring movie, almost taking its screen place with Elvis’s in Jailhouse Rock and Brando’s in One-Eyed Jacks.

Sand is the first salvo that Casablanca producer Wallis launched with shapely Corinne Calvet after signing her to a contract (Calvet’s then husband John Bromfield — later TV’s “Sheriff of Cochise” — even has a small role here). CC’s was a screen career that never quite took — though, if you consider that the actress didn’t amass all that many screen credits, she did manage to make two movies each with John Ford and (if you count her cameo in Sailor Beware) box office behemoths Martin and Lewis. (To say nothing of attaining affectionate footnote status for starring in the last movie made by the original Republic Pictures: 1959’s Plunderers of Painted Flats.) Here, Calvet’s character is all “ill-repute,” though you have to admire the way she manages to go through all sorts of hell in a sweaty South African milieu and still look as if her hair had been Lustre Creamed and styled maybe ten minutes earlier.

Shot in glamour-conscious black-and-white by Charles Lang (17 Oscar nominations), the yarn has slick Rains (manager of the Colonial Diamond Co.) hiring Calvet to use her wiles on former game hunter Lancaster — a couple years after the latter discovered a secret cache of jewels in an off-limits part of the desert while pursuing a client who’d wandered off to no good. Straight-arrow Lancaster didn’t pocket any booty and would have probably divulged the gems’ whereabouts, even without asking, had not sadistic police commandant Henreid gotten tough about it. With severe physical wounds healed (though not his emotional ones), Burt is back. Before long, he’s wangled his way into Henreid’s posh home to telegraph his intentions. One way to do it is to juggle the latter’s prized vase, for which there have only been a couple replicas in all of civilization. That sound you just heard was a premeditated “CRASH!”

Lorre is a sympathetic fencer of jewels whose breath would probably dry-clean your suit — and speaking of that, I always like how even down-on-their-luck guys like Burt in these old-school adventure pics still often look as if they’re dressed for dinner. So what else? Sam Jaffe is a boozy doctor who dabs at the whipping wounds on Lancaster’s back, and former L.A. Ram Kenny Washington is a kind of hero’s sidekick whenever the script stops to remember that he’s even in the movie. Hollywood did a pretty thorough job of tapping into the Rams so-called acting pool in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s: Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, quarterback and Jane Russell husband Bob Waterfield (opposite Johnny Weissmuller in Jungle Manhunt) and some Rams cameos in the football drama Easy Living (with its already singular cast of Victor Mature, Lizabeth Scott, Lucille Ball, Sonny Tufts, Lloyd Nolan, Jim Backus, Jack Paar and Billy Wilder’s wife Audrey Young).

In a polar-opposite role from his honorable chap in Casablanca, Henreid is as good as he ever was here. Rains keeps blackballing this creep from all the social clubs within 500 miles while pretending he hasn’t. And though Henreid keeps hitting on Calvet, she turns him down — probably sensing that he’s probably into S&M (the guy likes flogging too much). Sand’s underrated director William Dieterle was a compatible match for Wallis during this period, and the Wallis Paramounts were an entertaining bunch in the late ‘40s before the producer’s output got too slick and formulaic in subsequent decades. One poker scene here is superbly directed in terms of its actor placement in the frame. And Lancaster was outstanding at playing chumps or at least fall guys at this stage of his career — a casting philosophy that wouldn’t last for long.

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