ROPE OF SAND drifted into 1949 after writer Walter Doniger “read an item about a town in southwest Africa where you can’t get in or out without permission. It’s the center of the diamond-mining area, where diamonds are found on the ground. I thought it would make a wonderful picture, so I wrote a script about it.” The cocky Doniger (Hold Back The Night) had in mind reuniting Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but while producer Hal B. Wallis couldn’t afford them, he did corral their Casablanca co-stars Paul Henreid, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre. The trio, experts at urbane unease, provide various levels of cultured duplicity to pit against Burt Lancaster’s vengeance-seeking hero. One of postwar Hollywood’s flood of ‘exotic’ foreign imports, twenty-four-year-old French flirt Corinne Calvet, was introduced as the proverbial gold-hearted hooker. William Dieterle directed, and John Paxton ((Murder My Sweet, Crossfire) pitched in on the script. Since filming abroad (in present-day Namibia) was a no-go, handy dunes near Yuma, Arizona stood in for watch-where-you-tread Africa. *
When a safari client went rogue into a forbidden zone, hunter guide ‘Mike Davis’ (Burt) had the mixed-blessing luck to stumble across an easily scooped hoard of diamonds. Caught, tortured and ejected from the territory, Mike returns to even scores with ‘Martingale’ (Rains), the bemused, slyly venomous mine owner, and ‘Vogel’ (Henreid) the brutal chief of security who relishes his work. Martingale uses prostitute ‘Suzanne Renaud’ (Calvet) to seduce Mike, while ‘Toady’ (Lorre) hovers around the local bar spouting aphorisms between chain-smoked cigarettes. The production design is slick, the florid dialogue a bit rich (this is one of those quadruple-cross situations where nobody’s playing it straight), the convenient escapes and table-turns pure figment. Assorted accents provide most of the derivative fun: Calvet’s toasted Français defines cliché. The finale, a hand-to-hand clobber-fest in a raging sandstorm, is not bad.
It did well, 34th place for the year, taking in $6,200,000. With Sam Jaffe, John Bromfield (Calvet’s first husband), Mike Mazurki, Kenny Washington, Hayden Rorke, Nestor Paiva. 104 minutes.
* Henreid, on the climactic sandstorm fight: “It was ghastly work. Our eyes and mouths would fill with sand, and they had to stop shooting constantly to let us clean them out. They even flew in a doctor from Los Angeles to wash out our eyes for us. But after all these heroics they got back to the studio and discovered that the sandstorm didn’t photograph properly. The winds were too fast for the camera, and the sand too fine to register. To solve this, they trucked a mess of sand into the studio and reshot all the close-up scenes there, using a wind machine!”
Lancaster was less than thrilled: ” When I think of my least favorite, I think of Rope of Sand. I did that thing under great duress. I hated it.”