Friday, August 8, 2014

The Bribe (1949)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard                            Writer: Marguerite Roberts
Film Score: Miklós Rózsa                              Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Starring: Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Charles Laughton and Vincent Price

MGM was not know for producing noir films during the forties, primarily because Louis B. Mayer didn’t like the kind of tawdry stories that were typically made into those films, though they did produce one classic of the genre The Postman Always Rings Twice. For some reason, however, The Bribe hasn’t been able to gain the same kind of reputation. The only reason I even know of the film is because of its appearance in Steve Martin’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. One explanation could be that it is only tangentially a film noir. Ava Gardner’s character is not a true femme fatale and with Taylor being a cop it’s more of a crime/corruption story. Most critics feel that it is melodramatic and not really believable, but it’s a solid production that has good performances by its stars and confident direction. Director Robert Leonard had a lengthy career at MGM, beginning in the silent era and working in all kinds of genres from musicals to mysteries. And to top it off the film also boasts a film score by the great Miklós Rózsa.

The film begins in the middle of a storm on an island off of South America. Robert Taylor is in his room, thinking in voice-over about what it means to his integrity if he takes the offer he’s been made. The McGuffin, to use Hitchcock’s term, is airplane motors that are being separated from war surplus scrap metal and sold illegally for millions of dollars. Taylor is a government agent sent by his chief, John Hoyt, to the island to break up the ring. The only suspects he’s given are John Hodiak and his wife, Ava Gardner. But Taylor also meets Vincent Price on the plane ride down, and Charles Laughton in the lobby of his hotel. The town is preparing for some kind of celebration and Taylor heads to a nightspot to check out Gardner. Of course her beauty hits him like a sledgehammer, as she is absolutely gorgeous. Backstage he runs into Hodiak and when the ex-Air Force pilot passes out drunk, he helps Gardner take him home. Taylor’s cover is fishing and one day when he gets back he meets Price in the lobby of the hotel, and just a few minutes later Laughton makes the bribe, ten thousand dollars just to leave the island. Taylor plays dumb, but it’s doubtful he’s fooling anyone. And besides, he’s not going anywhere as long as Gardner’s around, Hodiak or no Hodiak.

It seems that no matter where Taylor goes on the island, Laughton is always hanging around. And when money doesn’t work, he says he’ll make sure Gardner is arrested too, the implication being that he’ll be able to go away with her after Hodiak’s heart condition kicks in and threatens to kill him. That’s the real bribe. I’ve never seen Robert Taylor in anything before, and he does a good job in this role. His voiceover is authentic and he doesn’t overplay the way Dick Powell does. Charles Laughton is wonderful as the fat, sweaty bug in Taylor’s ear, trying to get him to see the benefit of not doing his job. Vincent Price makes a good villain here, much better than his utterly bizarre performance in The Long Night. And, of course, Ava Gardner is ravishing, and makes the perfect love interest for Taylor. John Hodiak does a nice job in a supporting role, making his early death even more tragic. Almost all of the supporting actors are Latino, with the exception of Samuel S. Hinds as the doctor. This was also the last of the venerable actor’s films before his death, appearing in over two hundred during his career even though he didn’t begin acting until he was fifty-four years old.

Despite critical complaints the film is incredibly solid. The screenplay, which actually can get a bit melodramatic in noir films, stays within itself here and tells the story in a very logical manner. The dialogue is crisp and pointed, and most of all makes sense. The direction by Robert Leonard is also very good. There are some nice shots using mirrors, and the flashback sequence begins as a special effect shot within the mirror before pushing forward into the scene. The finale in the middle of the fireworks is also very unique. Film noir veteran Miklós Rózsa provides the score, and while it’s not as memorable as some of his others it is still very serviceable. What’s really great is that unlike many of the lame nightclub songs in noir films, the one that Ava Gardner sings is terrific. “Situation Wanted” was written by William Katz and Nacio Herb Brown and should have become a jazz standard, it’s that good. The Bribe is not gritty, and not terribly suspenseful. But what it lacks in those two areas it makes up for with character and story, and should be much better known among noir fans.

No comments:

Post a Comment