“I never knew a crooked road could look so straight.”
In his book Dark City, Eddie Muller discusses the 1949 film Thieves’ Highway. He calls it a case of “Steinbeck noir,” in reference to the bleak spin put on fruit markets and the 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 eight months prior, the film sets sights on another iconic author for inspiration: Ernest Hemingway. In swapping out the SoCal experience for a Central American detour, the film channels the cultural clash and hard drinking of his most celebrated work. On paper, it posed a thrilling opportunity to see what could be done in the confines of a “Hemingway noir.”
Sadly, The Bribe has little more than this gimmick going for it. A stormy opener introduces Federal Agent Rigby (Robert Taylor) and the film’s noir credentials — he paces, puffs a cigarette, and 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 added variables of crime boss Carwood (Vincent Price) and Rigby’s affair with Elizabeth greatly exacerbate the mission. Oh, and so does J.J. Bealer (Charles Laughton), a local who delights in playing both sides.
Director Robert Z. Leonard is given a Murderer’s Row of performers to play with here, but for the most part, they get underutilized. Hodiak and Gardner are an odd pairing that try to overlook their differences– one defeated by life, the other still trying to play an angle. They’re posed at the target 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 caught aback by how Hodiak’s Tug switches 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.
Then there’s Vincent Price; acting in broad, colorful strokes. His entire performance plays like an audition for the comedic His Kind of Woman (1951), but even in lesser form, there’s admitted fun to be had here. 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 scheming. It’s no coincidence that he’s the instigator behind the film’s stronger moments — namely, the scuffle on the fishing boat. Tired of playing nice with Rigby, Carwood causes a freak “accident” to kill the agent that winds up killing one of the crew instead. The sequence thrills in evoking the machismo of Hemingway’s work, while adding some much needed spark to Taylor’s performance.
Robert Taylor is the biggest roadblock this film faces. He looks terrific in his tropical white suits, but that can only suffice for so long before his stiffness starts to take its toll. Scenes with Price, Laughton, or even Hodiak should be punchy and competitive in their presentation. Instead, Taylor plays it as a minimalist– a decision that doesn’t really work in the exaggerated world of film noir. Even when he’s dropped into deadly situations (i.e. drugged, held at gunpoint), I don’t feel as though I’m seeing a guy on the ropes. Picture Zachary Scott or John Payne in the part, and my bone to pick will become apparent.
It doesn’t help that the plot gets especially convoluted in the third act; as the double-crosses made between the five main characters gets too confusing to keep track of, and momentum takes a nosedive. Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts might’ve fared better if she simplified Frederick Nebel’s novel instead of cramming its complexity into a cramped 98 minutes.
All 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 imaginative chase that follows (with uncredited direction by Vincente Minnelli) combines live fireworks with stunts that still remain impressive by today’s standards. As can be inferred, however, it’s too little too late to salvage things, and Rigby’s return to Elizabeth feels clumsily included. Laughton, the film’s untapped secret weapon, is forced to rattle off a final line of silliness.
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 mouth-watering cast and some enticing scenery, there’s simply too many missed opportunities to excel. It is a piece better suited as moments in a compilation than it is overall viewing. For those wanting the “Hemingway noir” aesthetic, I suggest taking in the fireworks finale and moving on to Rope of Sand (1949) and 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.