The Bribe

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.

27 thoughts on “The Bribe

  1. Terrific write-up Colin. This is one of those strange films where I remember a lot of things about it, including the amazing cast and the fabulous climax, but can never, ever remember what the plot is about! It doesn;lt help that so much of it ended up in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID as that tends to reinforce my mind’s occasional tendency to ‘pick ‘n mix’ shall we say …

    Leonard had an amazing career – I think he spent 27 straight years all at MGM and was pretty accomplished at practically any genre you threw at him, though mainly did romantic melodramas and some musicals – did some great Garbo movies for instance like SUSAN LENOX


    • Thanks Sergio. The plot does get a little garbled at times but the main thrust remains pretty clear throughout. I think that parts of the film will be familiar to a lot of people who’ve never actually seen it mainly, as you say, due to chunks of it appearing in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.

      When I looked through Leonard’s list of directing credits I was amazed to think that, despite his being such a prolific filmmaker, I’m pretty sure The Bribe is the only one of his movies I’ve ever seen.


      • I’m not sure of we can consider Leonard this ‘forgotten’ filmmaker, though his work is a bit more impressive than that of a mere studio workhorse like Richard Thorpe or Norman Taurog shall we say. I quite like films but I think I’ve seen a few more of those opulent MGM titles than you – he did the Olivier version of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, directed William Powell in THE GREAT ZIEGFIELD (which is full of good bits but does go on a bit), did the rich, weird and wonderful O’Neil adaptation STRANGE INTERLUDE with Gable and Shearer and handled Fred Astaire’s debut in DANCING GIRL. He directed Norma Shearer in THE DIVORCEE which is an interesting pre-code drama in one of the TCM sets; and I quite like IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME, the Judy Garland remake of THE SHOP ROUND THE CORNER. He was good at gloss and making the most of his leading ladies (he married two of them including Mae Murray – see: Just checked and it turns out he was at MGM for 31 years …


        • Not at all; I didn’t mean to suggest Leonard was a neglected or forgotten figure. If anything, I was commenting on my own lack of awareness of his work, and how that struck me as odd. He must surely be one of very few long time studio directors whose films have passed me by. I think it’s simply a result of the fact that his output seems, for the most part, to be concentrated on genres that don’t normally grab my attention.
          EDIT – Now I think of it, I believe I have caught snippets of The Great Ziegfield.


          • I know exactly what you mean – there are some directors you can end up incredibly well versed in just because they worked a lot with certain actors and your favourite genre and can make no personal impression. On the other hand, some directors did excellent work in not very memorable movies. The MGM factory style didn’t exactly privilege individuality in the their heyday in the 30s and I for one can;t really tell the difference between a movie shot by Leonard or Jack Conway shall we say! Clarence Brown on the other hand or King Vidor, that’s a different story.

            ZIEGFELD is a mad, opulent epic – hard to watch it all at over 3 hours – Usually the bit with giant revolving cake gets used for clips. I know what you mean about the genres to which the majority of Leonard’s output not being that enticing (I mean, he also did Nelson Eddy/Jeanette Macdonald operettas …) and a lot of the early melodramas he did, silent and sound, are not that easy to come by unless you have the US version of TCM which is so much better than the European one we get!


            • Ah yes, I’ve also seen snippets of some of those Eddy/MacDonald pictures. Let’s just say I’ll not be losing any sleep if I never renew my acquaintance with those. I do honestly try to gain a broad appreciation of cinema and not just stick to my comfort zone, but still…

              MGM is a curious studio to me. They produced some wonderful stuff; I have a lot of the studio’s pictures in my collection. Still, there was that tendency to add just too much gloss – especially during Louis B’s tenure – that I think dates many of their genre pictures to an extent that you don’t find with stuff from WB, Columbia, Universal or RKO.


              • Definitely – In terms of my DVDs, there is a definitely bias towards the output of Warner Bros first and foremost (always my favourite above all) and then Fox and RKO in level pegging and then everybody else after that! Now, OK, that;s partly about the fact that Warner put out a lot more classic titles than say Paramount (I mean the studios rather than the libraries they hold incidentally) but in the case of Warners, their output of the 30s and 40s are the ones I always go back to. one of the reasons I like THE THIN MAN so much is because it plays a lot like an ersatz Warners movie (Powell and James Wonf Howe were mainly based there in fact at the time and the shooting schedule was definitely more Warners than MGM!).


                  • Colin, where did you get the Spanish DVD from if I may ask? Amazon.sp seems to not have it in stock and is subject to a bit of a wait and DVD.GO, my usual Spanish e-tailer, doesn’t list it at all …


                    • I got it from – they now seem to be listing it as taking 1-3 weeks to ship. Their stock levels seem very low on a lot of titles but, from my own experience, anything they have listed will ship sooner or later.
                      Absolute titles in general are not the easiest to come by – a friend of mine was in Spain a few weeks back and very kindly picked up a copy of Confidential Agent, also by Absolute, but online availability is a bit of a pain.
                      I’m hoping that improve their stock levels as they go along – they’ve only been operating for a relatively short time.


  2. This is a film I’ve seen twice now, and I liked it even better the second time — when I was very fortunate to see it in a gorgeous 35mm print at last year’s Noir City Film Festival. It conveys terrific mood when blown up on a big screen. The fireworks finale is something else!

    Enjoyed your post!

    Best wishes,


  3. Cheers Colin for the info about Amazon in Spain – it sounds basically the same as the recently opened equivalent in Italy, which is tosay very variable. I ordered titles from them 10 days ago, all of which should have been in stock, and they are still awaiting dispatch. Which is not to moan too much because I have, eventually, received everythign I ordered from Amazon in Italy so far and to be fair it usually doesn’t take that long (ish).


    • Yeah, I’ve had a similar experience with the handful of titles I’ve ordered from so far. Anyway, their prices and shipping combined mean they’re generally much more competitive than the alternatives.
      Added to that, and I suspect you’re in a similar position, my current collection is such that I’m rarely seriously inconvenienced by these minor delays.


  4. “a quite literally explosive finale amid the carnival celebrations on the island…”

    It has been rumored that Vincente Minnelli directed this sequence. I’ve never seen it confirmed but it certainly looks like it could be him. Not to be dismissive of Leonard but it has more style than I’m used to with him.

    Just thought I’d mention this because of your line above and several others coming back to it. My memory of the whole film is that it’s mildly likeable and has its moments. I agree about Laughton (he’s almost invariably great) and Ava Gardner, so beautiful she could justify cinema all by herself.

    Over the long haul, MGM is my least favorite studio and you’ve already voiced my problems with it as far as the gloss (and behind it the Mayer mentality). But I think it improved greatly when Minnelli got there–he fought it out with Cedric Gibbons and effectively reshaped the art department. And I think once Dore Schary comes in in the 50s the studio holds its own with all the others, getting better with age the same way Robert Taylor does.


    • Cheers Blake., I hadn’t heard that rumour about Minnelli’s involvement.
      I think it’s quite clear that the arrival of Dore Schary as studio boss had an influential and beneficial effect on MGM. I guess there are plenty of fans of Mayer’s period in charge, but I can’t count myself one of them.


  5. I was so fascinated by the rumor Blake shared that Minnelli is rumored to have directed the fireworks sequence. It does seem a bit Minnelli-esque, being an especially stylish sequence. There aren’t any mentions in my books on Minnelli, but most of them are older…perhaps some definitive evidence, one way or the other, will turn up at some point in the future.

    Regarding another aspect of the discussion, it’s interesting that MGM has always been my favorite studio, in part as MGM musicals were the biggest factor which lured me into a love of classic films, in general, starting when I was a child. I appreciate the different types of MGM films under the different regimes for different reasons. I love the gloss and family-friendly feel of the Mayer era — MGM could dazzle like no other studio! — but I also appreciate the hard-hitting and grittier, darker films often turned out under Schary.

    Hard to pick a favorite studio after MGM, but it’s probably a tie between RKO and 20th Century-Fox. 🙂

    Best wishes,


    • Cheers Laura.
      Ultimately, I think anyone’s opinion of MGM’s product (depending on who was running the show at any given time) comes down to the kind of movies they’re drawn to. I think the studio was second to none when it came to lavish musicals. However, those aren’t really my thing to be honest, so it’s never going to be a selling point for me.

      My main issue is that the polish applied so successfully to the musicals and such like tended to get used (albeit to a lesser extent) on other genre pictures where it didn’t really fit.

      It’s interesting to note how highly regarded RKO remains among fans of all genres.


  6. I have a strong impression that opinions of lowly Republic have been coming up. And it’s very heartening to me that among this crowd, meaning you Colin as well as Laura, Toby at 50 Westerns from the 50s and others who post at these blogs, so many are now so appreciative of Universal in its 50s phase when it was Universal-International. It was my favorite studio of the decade–the directors, the contract stars and other players, the music, cinematographers, great art direction, the nice blend of genres, the double features that were such a pleasure–but has never seemed to have any respect, including (especially) from the studio itself who until recently has buried most of it in the vaults except for a few years on AMC in its good days and some video releases of certain things, like the sci-fi/horror cycle which has such ardent fans they always rightly clamored for those.

    Just want to stress re THE BRIBE and Minnelli’s possible direction of that flashy climactic sequence, this came up in a very knowledgeable film group awhile back and took me by surprise because I’d never seen anything about it either. But a number of people had heard about it and since contract directors could be assigned to things, do a day or two’s work here and there on the films of others, it does seem possible and a subject for further research. Of course, it isn’t the climactic sequence of SOME CAME RUNNING or anything but could be said to prefigure it, even if relatively modestly.


    • Cheers for the update on the Minnelli rumour.

      Re Universal: The last few years have seen the gradual emergence of more of the studio’s 50s product as commercial releases. For myself anyway, this has allowed me to see movies I’d either never come across before or had viewed so long ago they were no more than dim memories.
      Republic made some fine movies too, but the difficulty in seeing many of them is an obstacle to any reappraisal of that studio.


  7. Pingback: Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) | Tipping My Fedora

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.