“I never knew a crooked road could look so straight.”
In his 1998 book Dark City, Eddie Muller coined the term “Steinbeck Noir” to describe the film Thieves’ Highway (1949). In referencing the Southern California backdrop of many of John Steinbeck’s stories, Muller basically affirmed that film noir didn’t have to be in the city. It could occur in the brightest and seemingly safest of locations. So, in a similar vein, I present an example of what could be called “Hemingway Noir.”
Released by MGM in 1949, The Bribe shared many a similarity with the works of author Ernest Hemingway. There’s American characters on foreign soil, an emphasis on fishing, and perhaps most importantly, bearded men drinking lots and lots of booze. Given that Hemingway’s brazen acceptance of fate (“The world breaks everyone”) is similar to film noir, it seemed as though these stylistic bedfellows could make for something worthwhile.
Sadly, The Bribe has little more than its unique aesthetic to coast on. The film opens with Federal Agent Rigby (Robert Taylor) as he puffs a smoke and peers out the window. Those familiar with the genre can ascertain that the situation is bad, and on cue, a series of flashbacks lay out the premise: Rigby is in the town of Carlota to bust up an airline racket run by Tug Hintten (John Hodiak) and his wife Elizabeth (Ava Gardner). Whilst there, the addition of Carwood (Vincent Price) and local con artist J.J. Bealer (Charles Laughton) further complicate Rigby’s mission.
Robert Z. Leonard is given a deck of aces to direct here, but for the most part, he disperses them awkwardly. Hodiak and Gardner are an odd couple trying to sort through their primal differences: one has given up on life, the other is still fighting for a second chance. They’re presented as the villains early on, but as the plot evolves, and additional characters are introduced, this fails to stick. I’ve watched The Bribe several times now, and I’m still puzzled by how frequently Tug changes his allegiance. After a while, he starts to feel less like a real character and more like a throwaway card for the plot to move as it sees fit.
Gardner gives a stronger performance, as she actually develops a character with some complexity. There are scenes with Rigby where she comes off meek and vulnerable, while others, like her seductive song-and-dance number, where you’d swear she was playing everyone for a sucker. That we never really know for sure makes her one of the film’s more captivating players.
Vincent Price, meanwhile, plays the lead villain in loud, broad strokes. He’s the joker, to extend the card analogy. His performance here feels like an evil twin to his character from His Kind of Woman (1951), but even then, there’s marginal fun to be had. Carwood’s relish for crime is a breath of fresh air given amidst characters who seem muted and disinterred. I half expected him to twirl his mustache when he and Bealer are making their evil plans. It’s no surprise that he’s responsible for some of the film’s energetically-charged moments, including a failed attempt to murder Rigby.
In the film’s most overt nod to Hemingway, Carwood kills one of the natives and tosses him over the side of a fishing boat, causing Rigby to steer his assignment into personal vendetta. It’s melodramatic and macho in the best possible ways. It’s also one of the few times Robert Taylor shows some legitimate passion.
Taylor is incredibly boring here. He looks terrific in his white suits, but that only charms for so long before his stiffness as an actor begins to impede on the viewer’s patience. He plays his scenes with Price and Laughton as a minimalist, which not only allows him to be overshadowed, it makes him virtually nonexistent. Even when he’s dropped into a deadly situation, it doesn’t feel as though we’re seeing a desperate man. We’re seeing a movie star make-believe that he’s desperate. And badly, at that.
If given access to a time machine and a backlot pass, I would strongly suggest that MGM consider Zachary Scott for Rigby instead.
To be fair to Taylor, the screenplay does get messy in the final act, as the double-crosses made between the five main characters run together in almost comedic fashion. It becomes evident that MGM failed to realize their cast was a big enough draw, and they didn’t need to spatter a tedious plot to hold our interest. Screenwriter Marguerite Roberts might’ve fared better had she simplified Frederick Nebel’s story instead of squeezing it into 98 minutes.
All angles converge in the (literally) explosive finale. Rigby and Carwood give chase in a set piece that combines live fireworks with stunts that remain dazzling even by today’s standards. Vincente Minnelli was brought in to direct these scenes, both raising the production value and lowering its overall score, as I’m forced to consider how much better his version of the film would’ve been.
The Bribe was a flop in 1949, and in the decades since, little has improved. Despite a truly remarkable cast and some beautiful scenery, there’s simply not enough to make for an interesting film. For those intrigued by the idea of “Hemingway Noir”, I suggest taking in the fireworks of this film’s finale and moving on to brighter fare like 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 specialist 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.