The last non-western I looked at had Ava Gardner suffering in an exotic setting. The Bribe (1949) sees the same actress back sweating it out in a far-flung place, but the results are much more satisfying this time. The film is a borderline noir that employs some of the staples of the form to excellent effect. There’s also a first-rate cast who work hard, yet it’s not a movie without some problems. It opens and closes very strongly; the issue is the overpadded mid-section which ought to have had some of its excess fat trimmed off in the editing room. Even so, the finished product is still worthwhile viewing, largely due to some highly memorable visuals and a couple of fine performances.
Rigby (Robert Taylor) is a federal agent investigating a racket involving smuggled war surplus engines. He’s first seen on the balcony of his hotel room on a steamy Central American island, one of those places where even the lethargic ceiling fans seem worn down by the oppressive heat. There’s a violent storm brewing outside while an internal one is already in the process of churning up the hero’s emotions. As Rigby sweats and smokes, his weary voiceover leads us into a flashback sequence that will occupy the first half of the picture. It all starts off with one of those earnest briefings by the Feds, so beloved of post-war noir, which establishes Rigby’s undercover role. He’s been sent to the island of Carlotta to nail a gang of smugglers and his only lead is a couple of suspects, a married couple in fact. Tug Hintten (John Hodiak) and his wife Elizabeth (Ava Gardner) are two down on their luck expatriates scratching out a living on the island; he’s an ex-pilot with a drink problem, reduced to slumming it as a bartender, while she sings in the same night club. Almost inevitably, Elizabeth is drawn to Rigby, his quiet assurance contrasting sharply with the drunken pessimism of her weak and ineffectual husband. The problem is that the feeling is mutual and Rigby slowly finds himself torn between his sense of professionalism and his desire for Elizabeth. To further complicate matters, it’s soon apparent that Hintten is not working alone. Carwood (Vincent Price) has the appearance of just another tourist but he’s awfully keen on making Rigby’s acquaintance, and Bealer (Charles Laughton) is one of those rumpled chisellers who always have an angle to pitch. Suddenly, Rigby’s life has become very complicated – he knows these four are all bound together as conspirators and he knows his duty, but his attraction to Elizabeth is skewing his judgement and is also being used by the villains as a lever to encourage him to turn a blind eye. As the storm breaks and the flashback leads us to the present, it’s clear that we’ve reach the critical moment. Rigby stands at a moral crossroads; does he take the path of honour and do his job or does he follow the call of his heart? If he’s to choose the former then he has to find some means of doing so without damning the woman he’s falling in love with. Now this is an interesting setup, but the development of the romance slows the pace of the film badly. It’s only in the second half, when matters are forced to a head, that the movie picks up speed again and coasts along towards a quite literally explosive finale amid the carnival celebrations on the island.
For a man with such an extensive filmography, Robert Z Leonard is a director whose work I’m not familiar with. A quick glance through his credits explains that though – he specialized in movies which hold little or no interest for me. However, he, along with cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg, does a fine job of blending classical noir iconography with a melodramatic crime story. Even some decidedly turgid romantic moments are made all the more bearable by the clever use of shadows and light filtered through louvred doors. The fact that The Bribe was an MGM production might give one pause for though too. It may well have been the studio that best typified the heyday of Hollywood, but I wouldn’t rank it among my favourites. The house style usually demanded a kind of populist gloss that tended to preclude any notion of realism or grit. In the case of this movie though, the artificiality that marked out MGM actually works in its favour, that heightened sense of unreality adding to the exotic flavour of the setting. From a purely visual perspective, The Bribe looks splendid. The biggest issue is the way the script allows the essentially uneventful middle of the story to drag on for far too long.
I mentioned in the introduction that there are a couple of fine performances, but I’ll work up to that gradually. I found John Hodiak’s work the weakest of the five main players. His first scene where he’s supposed to be drunk felt amateurish and unconvincing, like a guy who never touched a drop doing an impression of a lush. However, he spends most of the remainder of the movie laid up in his sick-bed so there’s no opportunity to see whether he could have added another dimension to his role. It has to be said that Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner made for an extremely attractive leading couple, and they do have a certain chemistry on-screen. Gardner looks breathtakingly beautiful in some shots and it’s clear that this was a woman capable of making any man reappraise his ethics. Taylor was an actor who I think gets slated too often by critics. His looks often meant that he was underestimated, but age and maturity came to his rescue. His post-war work gets better with each passing year as his tough reserve was increasingly reflected in his features. I reckon his western roles bring out the best in him but he also made some first class noir pictures too; The Bribe may not be his finest, but it’s not bad either. Vincent Price was another who improved as the years passed, and his role as the slimy and conniving Carwood represents a step along that path. Right at the top of the heap though is Charles Laughton, giving a performance that’s slyly captivating. His perpetually unshaven Bealer is a clever combination of the sleazy and the pitiful. In a role that could easily have become deeply unattractive, his expressive features and carefully modulated voice create a character who pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of being simultaneously repulsive and sympathetic.
A while back, I was on the point of ordering the Warner Archive version of The Bribe, but then noticed that the film was also available on pressed disc from Spain. So, I ended up buying the release from Absolute. From reading online comments and looking at screencaps, I think the Spanish release is broadly comparable to the R1 disc. The film hasn’t undergone any restoration and there are minor scratches and marks on the print. Still, there are no serious issues and the contrast and clarity are generally strong. Absolute provide the theatrical trailer and the English soundtrack only; the Spanish subtitles can be disabled via the setup menu. There’s also a booklet of viewing notes included, in Spanish of course, that features the original poster art and lots of attractive stills. The film is an entertaining yet imperfect slice of noir exotica. Ultimately, the characters, with the possible exception of Carwood, revert to traditional morality and thus dilute the darkness that the script flirts with. It may not be full-blown noir and the script could use a bit of tightening but it’s well worth seeing, if only for Gardner’s beauty and Laughton’s low-life charm.