April 12, 2011

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Olive Films continues to raid the Paramount vaults, this time with William Dieterle’s 1949 Casablanca clone Rope of Sand. Released on April 5th, along with Edward Dmytryk’s The Mountain (1956), it’s another strong DVD presentation from the company. The spotless print is presented in a progressive transfer that showcases the inky blacks of cinematographer Charles Lang. Producer Hal B. Wallis left Warner Brothers in 1944 to form his own production company, Wallis-Hazen, and was eager to recreate his biggest hit for his new distributor Paramount. He bought Walter Doniger’s Casablanca-esque script and wrangled three of that film’s actors: Paul Lorre, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains. The leads were given to Burt Lancaster, who was under contract to Wallis, and Corinne Calvet, a French siren the producer hoped to mold into the next Ingrid Bergman. The result is a prickly bit of entertainment, a threadbare and more nihilistic version of its model.

There is much less at stake in Walter Doniger’s screenplay. In Casablanca Bogart wrestles with aiding the French Resistance, and in Rope of Sand Burt Lancaster is trying to steal a cache of diamonds from a South African mine. Lancaster plays Mike Adams, a former hunting guide turned depressive. A few years back one of his clients wandered off onto the protected area of the mine, hoping to strike it rich. He succeeded in in finding a rich vein of jewels, but dies of dehydration. Davis is then caught by the mine’s security force, led by Paul Henreid’s Commandant Vogel. Vogel tries to beat the location of these diamonds out of him, but to no avail. Stripped of his license, and unable to obtain a passport, Davis is a man adrift. He returns to the mine to rip off the diamond load and get his revenge on Vogel. Claude Rains plays Arther Martingale, a mine functionary who plays both sides off each other, with the help of Corinne Calvet as the ambitious prostitute Suzanne Renaud.

Davis is a stridently unlikeable character: selfish, brutish and a little dense. Lancaster was evidently unhappy with the production, as his biographer Kate Buford reported that it was “he one he would remember as the worst movie in which he ever appeared.” Eager to play out the string of his Wallis contract, he gives Adams a cold, dumb brutality that hedges against the threat of audience identification. There are no anti-heroics here, just a profoundly unconvincing happy ending.

Director William Dieterle and cinematographer Lang follow Casablanca‘s visual template, of cluttered baroque interiors and roving tracking shots inside bustling nightclubs. Lang uses lower light than the earlier film, perhaps compensating for the lack of background activity. While Casablanca has an expressive face sitting on every barstool, the world of Rope of Sand is relatively de-populated. Peter Lorre, who crawls into the film as a philosophizing fence, enters an empty frame. With less to explore, Dieterle’s camera movements are adumbrated compared to Curtiz’s long traveling shots down the bar. What Dieterle emphasizes instead are power relations, mainly expressed through a simple but effective method of blocking his actors along with alternating camera angles.

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When Mike Davis returns to South Africa on a freighter, Vogel is there to meet him with plum-voiced taunts. Davis is physically restrained by a pair of strapping deck hands, as Vogel looks imperiously downward. The camera peeks down at Davis, and upward at Vogel, quickly sketching their respective positions in the narrative. By the end, they are framed on equally level angles as their fortunes meet in the middle. Dieterle’s framing of Corinne Calvet undergoes a similar shift, tracking her transformation from a tool of Martingale’s to a woman who asserts her will.

The image that top-lines this post shows Calvert posing for Claude Rains, an erotic puppet that he’ll use to arouse the jealousies of Henreid and Lancaster. This becomes visualized in a poker game, before which Rains whispers devious nothings into Calvert’s ear. When she sits down, Rains is placed behind and to the right of her, his mouth still in visual range of her ear. Then the camera slowly dollies forward, and Calvet moves her head to the right, obscuring Rains’ face – the puppeteer lost in his art. Then there is a cut to Lancaster, with empty space around him – the only man outside of all human entanglement.

The controlling imagery surrounding Calvet continues when she goes home with Henreid, who pins her in-between two hanging canvas frames. She is a decoration to Henreid’s narcissistic martinet, window dressing to his tin-horn dictatorship. Little does he know that she’s under Rains’ employ, or that she is rapidly falling in love with the brusque Lancaster, for reasons that remain obscure aside from narrative necessity. By the end of the film the imagery of control and display fall away in Calvet’s scenes, and she shares equal screen space with Lancaster.

With thoughtful little stylistic strategies like these, Dieterle is able to lift his second-run scenario into something with a semblance of vitality. And thanks to the shit-eating grin of a performance by Claude Rains, as well as the reliably creepy work by Peter Lorre, Rope of Sand pulls itself together to be a diverting shadow of Casablanca.

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