“Rope of Sand” – Burt Lancaster in North Africa

Desert noir

Rope of Sand (Olive)

Set in the unforgiving desert badlands and cutthroat diamond trade of North Africa, with a cast that could be the burned-out, ruthlessly mercenary evil twins of Casablanca, Rope of Sand (1949) recasts the exotic thriller with a noir sensibility under the harsh light of a desert sun. Burt Lancaster is the American hero, turned bitter and vengeful after his mistreatment at the hands of the sadistic head of security of the diamond company, and Corinne Calvet (“introduced” to American audiences here) the doll-faced femme fatale Suzanne, a mercenary gold-digger whose first act is to blackmail middle-aged company man Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains). She’s a beauty, to be sure, and plays the part as a sex kitten with claws, but she’s not convincingly worldly next to the display of hard-bitten survival from the rest of the veteran cast.

The echoes to Casablanca are unmistakable, and not just from the North African setting, expatriate characters and battle of wills. Rains plays Martingale as a cousin to Casablanca‘s Louis in the corporate world, with a little more venom but just as susceptible to dramatic romantic gestures, and fellow Casablanca vets Paul Henreid (this time as a villain) and Peter Lorre (all drunken melancholy as a well-informed underworld hustler) fill out the top-billed cast. Even more fun than the battle of wills between the embittered Mike and Henreid’s vain, vicious Commandant Vogel (not a Nazi but certainly symbolically channeling the role) is the gleeful gamesmanship of Martingale, who hires Suzanne to play the two off one another for his own amusement (he delights in humiliating Vogel) as much as for business.

Director William Dieterle really sinks his teeth into competitive play of blackmail, double-crossing and betrayal and keeps the edge on even as a couple of characters reveal a conscience by the end. And he nicely shifts the film from the hard daylight of the desert, the shadows more about the heat of the sun than the darkness of the soul, into a nocturnal world with intimate indoor scenes in pools of illumination and outdoor scene played in the shadows as lights cut the darkness, in particular a muscular fist-fight in the desert lit by the headlamps of a halftrack. It makes for one of the most engagingly entertaining artifacts on the margins of film noir and a terrific rediscovery debuting on DVD in a fine B&W edition. No supplements from this bare bones Olive Films release.

Curiosities from the Paramount Library

Olive Films, a small theatrical distributor and DVD label specializing in indies and foreign films, expands its catalogue with releases from the Paramount Pictures library, and they kick off the partnership with the debut of five features spanning the fifties to the seventies, including three crime dramas with (to a greater or lesser extent) film noir credentials.

Lizabeth Scott and Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston made his official screen debut as the stony leading man of Dark City (Olive), an unambitious but handsome production from reliable studio hand William Dieterle. Heston’s Danny Haley is a hard-hearted veteran turned gambler who resorts to rooking a friendly, naïve tourist from California (an affable Don Defore) in a rigged poker game, designed to get a $5,000 check that Haley spies in his wallet. The fallout from the scam is more than he’s ready for—the guy kills himself—but worse than the slow-burn guilt is the blowback from the dead man’s psychotic brother. This shadowy psycho (seen only as a bulky shadow and meaty, gorilla-like hands) targets the gang members and stages their deaths as suicides.

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