“I never knew a crooked road could look so straight.”
In his 1998 book Dark City, Eddie Muller coins the film Thieves’ Highway (1949) as a case of “Steinbeck noir,” in reference to the dark spin put on the fruit markets and Southern California of the author’s youth. Suddenly, the agriculture business was an opportune place for greed and murder. In a similar vein, I present The Bribe. Released by MGM in 1949, the film pulled its inspiration from another iconic author, Ernest Hemingway. In swapping out the California experience for a Central American detour, the film sought to capture the cultural clash and hard drinking of Hemingway’s most celebrated work.
Unfortunately, The Bribe has little more than this promising gimmick to work from. A stormy opener introduces Federal Agent Rigby (Robert Taylor) and the film’s noir credentials — he paces, he puffs a smoke, and he nervously looks out the window. Those familiar with the genre know the predicament is severe, and on cue, a series of flashbacks make with the explaining: Rigby is in the town of Carlota to bust up an airline racket ran by ex-pilot Tug Hintten (John Hodiak) and his wife Elizabeth (Ava Gardner). Whilst there, the addition of crime boss Carwood (Vincent Price), slimy local J.J. Bealer (Charles Laughton), and Rigby’s affair with Elizabeth greatly complicate the mission.
Director Robert Z. Leonard is given a brilliant cast of performers to play with here, but for the most part, they are underutilized. Hodiak and Gardner are an odd pairing that try to overlook their differences– one who’s given up on life, the other still trying to play an angle. They’re posed at the villains early on, but as the film progresses, and Carwood comes into the mix, motivations become unnecessarily confusing. I’ve watched it three times now, and I’m still thrown by how Tug seems to switch alliances every other scene. As Elizabeth, Gardner offers a slightly stronger turn. Playing someone who goes out of her way to prove herself a good girl, she actually makes Rigby seem like the predatory one when they’re together. This is excluding a slinky song-and-dance that would make even Kitty Collins (The Killers) blush.
Vincent Price plays the lead villain in broad, colorful strokes. His performance plays like a precursor to his classic role in His Kind of Woman (1951), but even in lesser form, there’s admitted fun to be had. He relishes his evil deeds while everyone around him seems overwrought and uncertain– I half expected him to twirl his mustache when he and Bealer are concocting their plan. It’s no coincidence that he incites the film’s stronger moments — namely, a scuffle on a fishing boat that results in murder. The sequence thrills in evoking not only the environment, but the machismo of Hemingway’s most notable work, while adding some much needed spark to the character played by Robert Taylor.
Taylor is the biggest shortcoming the film is faced with. He looks terrific in his white suits, but that can only suffice for so long before his stiffness begins to take center stage. Scenes with Price, Laughton, or even Hodiak should have a sharp, competitive edge to them. Instead, Taylor plays it as a minimalist– a decision that doesn’t play well in the exaggerated world of film noir. Even when he’s dropped into a deadly situation (i.e. drugged, held at gunpoint), it doesn’t feel as though we’re seeing a guy on the ropes– picture Zachary Scott or John Payne in the part, and my bone to pick will become more apparent.
It doesn’t help that the plot gets especially messy in the third act, as the double-crosses made between the five main characters run together and make for underwhelming reveals. Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts might’ve fared better had she simplified Frederick Nebel’s novel instead of cramming its complexity into 98 minutes.
All these deals converge in the (literally) explosive finale. Rigby gets his head straight after being drugged, and convinces Bealer to frame Carwood for the police. The lively chase that follows (with uncredited direction by Vincente Minnelli) combines live fireworks with stunts that still remain impressive by today’s standards. Sadly, it’s too late to salvage things, however, and Rigby’s return to Elizabeth feels clumsily included. Laughton is also there to make a final, unneeded quip.
The Bribe was a flop in 1949, and I’m sorry to report that in the decades since, little about the film has improved. Despite a rich cast and some enticing scenery, there’s simply too too little in the way of memorable moments. For those wanting the “Hemingway noir” aesthetic, I suggest taking in the fireworks finale and moving on to Rope of Sand (1949) or Macao (1952). C
TRIVIA: Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner took to their onscreen romance, and briefly dated after the film was released.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir enthusiast and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.