Saturday, November 21, 2015

Rope of Sand (1949)

*** out of 5

"the pain won't go away until I get what I already paid for!"

IMDB's brief summary is pretty accurate: "A man[Burt Lancaster] abused by a sadistic mining company cop [Paul Henreid] before he could tell where on their desert property he'd found diamonds decides to steal them instead."

The plot is essentially that, but where the filmmakers go with that plot is interesting and engaging.  Add to that plot a cast of colorful characters that includes Claude Raines, Peter Lorre, Sam Jaffe, and Mike Mazurki, and the results should be pretty entertaining, right?  

In some ways, it feels like an attempt to recapture the magic of Casablanca.  We have the African setting, three of the key players from that film, and a complicated romance between Burt Lancaster and Corinne Calvet as a substitute for Bogie and Ingrid.  Call it Casablanca lite if you like, But it is really its own creature.  The relationships and characters are too different for a direct comparison. 

The love triangle of Casablanca, for example, is only dimly reflected here.  Claude Raines is the conniving, casually larcenous man who hires Calvet to try to play Henreid against Lancaster to help Raines get the diamonds all to himself.  While Henreid does express desire for Calvet, he is spurned for his sadism and cruelty, and never seriously considered a likely object of her affections, but merely a trap for her to try to escape with Lancaster's help. Some reviewers have complained that Calvet "is no Ingrid Bergman," but she is a very good Corinne Calvet, and seeing what she does so well in this film, one wonders why anybody would want her to be someone other than who she is. Not only is she a stunningly beautiful figure (strikingly appareled by the incomparable Edith Head), she is an effective and moving actress in a difficult role as a hired femme fatale with a complicated past who, falling for the man she is supposed to be betraying, ultimately becomes a part of his and her own redemption.

Paul Henreid plays a socially ambitious man, Commandant Vogel, who is also complexly nuanced- is sadistic, but with a near-fetishistic attraction for works of art- paintings, pottery, diamonds, and women, none of which his more brutal attributes will allow him to keep.  His relations with all the other characters is a strained dichotomy: on one hand wanting respect and love, and on the other enjoying the brutal exercise of the power he has fought so hard to obtain.

Peter Lorre is also in the film, as a talkative, philosophizing small-timer of the type that is an odd melding of his role in Casablanca with that of Sidney Greenstreet in Maltese Falcon.  Unfortunately he is given far too little to do, and the character has minimal reason for existing in the story, as a mere plot device for helping accomplish Lancaster's goals.

As I began watching this Southern Africa-based film noir, I couldn't help but ponder the historical-political state of the place where it was set, as it might relate to the story.  Where the action takes place is not specifically explained in great detail, but various clues are present that can give a general sense of the locale.  The [fictionalized?] location of most of the action is a small desert town called Diamontstad, which, with its Germanic-sounding name, combined with references in the dialogue to Cape Town, and the points at which the border with Angola become important to the plot, all suggest that this takes place in the then-disputed territory of South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia), which was previously under control of Germany before WWII, and over which South Africa was then disputing with UN for control.  

The time when this film came out was 1949, roughly a year after the first steps toward institution of Apartheid policies were being implemented in South Africa.  I knew that much going into the film and wondered what, if any, part that might play in the storytelling.  This film ultimately isn't about that at all, though.  However, there are numerous instances in which it touches on issues of race.  The opening scene depicts a black man being chased through the desert by half-tracks driven by diamond cartel thugs with guns protecting their territory from intruders.  That opening is meant to set up the stakes and the main threat of the film, but it also shows the mindset of the villains toward the native Africans- that they are little better than animals to be hunted down and killed without impunity. Following this up is scene of perhaps a more cruel and bureaucratic abuse:  Paul Henreid is seen shortly afterward, negotiating a labor contract with 3 local chiefs, and laying out conditions of their employment through a translator:
"You sign up for a year. No drinking"
"Once a month."

Race also plays into the introduction of Burt Lancaster's character. We first see a boat man shouting orders to those unloading his hold, and getting resistance to his demands.  A very human reaction is depicted by Kenny Washington's character, a black laborer who pretends not to understand the man's English as a way of refusing to do what he wants. When he is injured by Henreid shortly after, and defended by Lancaster, he utters a soft "thank you." to him.  "I thought you didn't speak English." Lancaster says in surprise.  Washington replies, "I don't speak English much, to many people." Lancaster and the audience both say, "I see what you mean." 

The film depicts of Washington gratefully responding to Lancaster's act of kindness by going to work for him.  Some modern viewers may consider this as "perpetuating slave-master racial relations," or make some similar academic response.  But within the context of this film, it is a small but sincere effort to change perceptions of race by contrasting the humanity of this  man with the inhuman brutality of Henreid and calculating cruelty of Raines.  That, really is the heart of the film.  Yes, it's an entertaining noir, with riveting moments of drama like the vicious fistfight that takes place during a sandstorm, but it's ultimately most effective as a look at the dark side of what it means to be human- to care about others, and how quickly greed and cruelty can corrupt and destroy that humanity.

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