Burt Lancaster said Rope of Sand (1949) was his least favourite of his films, and it’s easy to see the movie’s problems, but it also has a lot more going for it than his low opinion would suggest. It’s a noirish adventure that unfolds in a South African diamond mining area patrolled by sadistic Commandant Vogel (Paul Henried). A few years ago Mike Davis (Lancaster), a hunter and guide, had a client stray from him to make a fatal desert venture far into the prohibited area. Mike found his man near death at a rich diamond lode, but never helped himself to the treasure, and the more Vogel tortured Mike the more firmly he resolved never to reveal the location. In the time since, Vogel has made it impossible for Mike to find work or leave Africa, so now Mike has returned to get the diamonds he feels he’s paid for in advance with scars and years of suffering.
Meanwhile, diamond company executive Martingale (Claude Rains), who despises Vogel and foils his every promotion opportunity, aims to discover the diamond lode’s location by hiring Frenchwoman Suzanne (Corinne Calvet) to apply her seductive talents to both Mike and Vogel. The other players in this treasure hunt are alcoholic doctor Sam Jaffe and opportunist Peter Lorre who deals in valuable information and vital shady services.
Lancaster is good at playing wounded, tough and hard, and here he thrives on his anger and misery. His story and defiance has become legendary, as we learn through Lorre’s “I know a guy” tale shared int he cantina, part of the clues laid out slowly at the outset about the characters and action to come. Mike tells Suzanne that his grudge and the dream of getting those diamonds have become his reason for living, and he criticizes her acceptance of an unfair world as a sign that she’s dead inside. There’s a poker game that’s meant to emphasize just how intolerant Mike is of abuse and cheating, but it also makes you wonder why Mike would even play Vogel when he knows what a slimy villain he is.
Vogel is a super sadist, all about inflicting pain and punishment and refining his techniques. He loves only his beautiful museum-like mansion and the prized antiques he acquired by exploiting wartime hardship and misery. When Vogel proudly shows Suzanne the priceless vase he got from a desperate Frenchman, her sour reaction hints that she has plenty of experience being just such an exploited victim, and I wish that kind of detail was further developed to make her more interesting. Calvet didn’t bother me as much as she seems to put off most of this film’s reviewers; her smoldering Rita Hayworth look and exotic accent make her a decent femme. There’s a little chemistry between her and Lancaster but not quite powerful enough to fully explain why once Mike successfully escapes he would return to rescue her, risk his life and hard-won diamonds.
So yes, the plot is far from perfect, the characters could have used more fleshing out, and the movie feels overlong and overstuffed with double and triple crosses, power reversals. But for all that I liked it. Director William Dieterle and cinematographer Charles Lang come up with some great looking shots and interesting, fluid camera work. The climactic desert brawl has some exciting and realistic touches like a faceful of sand, pre-Mad Max: Fury Road vehicle leaps and the acrobatics Lancaster was so great at. You can’t go wrong spending time with this group of actors, not when Lancaster is this young, handsome and seething, Henreid this fantastically nasty, and Rains this delighted with his clever manipulation and creative cover-ups.