Rope of Sand heartily depends on the audience’s affection for American noir signifiers. To enjoy this film, one must really love watching attractive people smoke prettily while high-ceilinged fans twirl leisurely in boozy “dives” that are more elaborate and harmless than a bar at a Holiday Inn, while bad guys or gloriously damaged world-weary losers give the usual speeches about making the most of fate and opportunity. Almost aggressively devoid of the faintest suggestion of subtext, the film is nothing but “bits,” many of which are distractingly transparent variations of better scenes from producer Hal B. Wallis’s overrated yet vastly superior Casablanca.
As impersonally sentimental as Casablanca is, it exudes a sense of pulp majesty. The gears in the contraption don’t become apparent until the film ends; before then, it appears to be building toward something, which might be revealed by the particulars of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s tragically abbreviated romance. No scene in Casablanca is about anything apart from the isolated cinematic appeal of the various tropes that also litter Rope of Sand, but something happens in the former that’s probably accidental: Bogart and Bergman’s romance comes to symbolize our naïve belief in the myths movies sell us, and that suggestion fuses with all the irresistible hambone acting to create a movie that’s more appealing than the sum of its parts. Rope of Sand only encourages retrospective appreciation of Casablanca, as it shows just how rare that alchemy actually is.
Rope of Sand’s plot doesn’t matter, and that’s not important, but nothing else matters either. One can see the film straining for the seemingly tossed-off irreverence that’s often said to embody the “magic of Hollywood.” The pertinent takeaway is that greedy diamond miners in South West Africa once screwed over earnest hunk Mike Davis (Burt Lancaster), who returns to even the ledger. The film spends roughly an hour imparting the prior sentence’s worth of information in a regrettable attempt to drum up artificial intrigue that’s meant to be reminiscent, once again, of Casablanca. Peter Lorre returns from the other movie as basically himself, delivering a few incoherent speeches about the wonder of diamonds. Claude Raines is also back in the familiar role of the amoral smoothie who’s likable because he’s played by Claude Raines. Paul Heinreid, yet another Casablanca alumnus, is the despicable white supremacist who’s immune to Mike’s charms. Corinne Calvet is this film’s dame, a gorgeous French hustler who immediately retires her wicked ways, of course, at the sight of said earnest hunk. Along the way, Sam Jaffe also briefly turns up so as to offer his brand of sage common sense.
All of these things are appealing in other contexts, but thrown together, with nothing to bind them apart from Franz Waxman’s overwhelmingly purplish score, they manage to suggest a buffet composed of stale and arbitrarily assembled side dishes. The entrée should be Lancaster, but he doesn’t have Bogart’s talent for imbuing tortured characters with just enough romanticism so as to render them accessible without nulling their prickly danger. Lancaster, with his square jaw and broad shoulders, is more of a straight-up all-American type, and he was capable of using that quality to poignant and ironic effect. But this film straitjackets him with a boring Dudley Do-Right role that few could really get away with. Trapped, Lancaster leaves a void in the film that emphasizes the naked calculation behind every preordained gesture. To paraphrase something Pauline Kael once wrote about The Princess Bride, you can see the chalk marks that this film isn’t hitting.
There are some mild noise issues in certain landscape shots, but this image is generally attractive. Blacks are luscious, and background clarity enhances the film’s occasionally clever blocking. Textures, particularly of the sand that plays a pivotal role in the narrative, are well-detailed. The soundtrack is clean and packs a bit of nicely understated oomph. Franz Waxman’s score is irritating, but it sounds great.
William Dieterle’s forgettable, generically stylish attempt at cashing in on the success of Casablanca nets a good transfer on an otherwise characteristically barebones Olive Films release. And that’s all that’s necessary for a film that’s only for cinephiles or enthusiasts of the character actor-stocked cast.