Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Bribe (1949) - Charles Laughton on the Beach

The Bribe poster
"The Bribe" (1949).

Robert Taylor is a Fed (identified only as "Rigby") investigating shady dealings south of the border in "The Bribe" (1949), directed by Robert Z. Leonard from a script by Marguerite Roberts (who later did John Wayne's "True Grit"). Rigby's assignment has something to do with war-surplus aircraft engines, but that is just the Mcguffin, or excuse, as Hitchcock would say. There is nary an aircraft engine in sight in "The Bribe." As soon as he arrives, Rigby meets a cast of eccentric expatriates who obviously don't belong there but who just as clearly are disturbed by his presence. Rigby promptly steps on the anthill, and the ants start scrambling.

The Bribe poster
The late 1940s and early 1950s was a golden age for movie posters.

Directed to investigate a suspicious couple (Ava Gardner and John Hodiak), Rigby proceeds to blunder around about as blatantly as possible while imagining that he is operating undercover. He is sly like a fox, though, as the villains, quickly spotting this dangerous interloper, all come to him and attempt to manipulate him away from their affairs. In this sense, the film resembles an old TV episode of "Columbo." But the terrific performances by Vincent Price, as the main heavy, and especially Charles Laughton as a mysterious out-of-place presence, elevate this film above the common. Laughton chews the scenery with gusto, appearing in the strangest places and never quite revealing what he is all about. As usual, he demonstrates his mastery with details, as when he produces X-Rays of his feet to try to win Taylor's sympathy and then fumbles them all over the floor.  He was taking on eccentric projects at this stage of his career to stretch himself a bit (see "Abbot and Costello Meet Captain Kidd"), and this was one of them.

The Bribe Robert Taylor
Robert Taylor starts poking around in "The Bribe."

Price, on the other hand, plays for keeps from the start and ultimately gets exactly what he deserves. His role is a good bit scarier than those in some of the horror films for which he is best remembered, as here he engages in realistic violence rather than campy fights with cats and so forth in films like "Tomb of Ligeia."

The Bribe Ava Gardner
Ava Gardner sparkles in "The Bribe."

As for Ava Gardner, well, I've never really been a fan, and her character doesn't make much sense. She likes him, she doesn't like him, she likes him, she quite possibly kills him.... I didn't understand her character's motivations at all. Even though she is considered this big sexpot, she looks rather ordinary even when dressed in revealing costumes. But she plays the femme fatale with energy, if never really proving to me why she would be able to lure men to their destruction.

The Bribe Vincent Price
Vincent Price behind the scenes on the set of "The Bribe," already showing a touch of grey.

The star power in this film is just intense, which makes its obscurity puzzling.  Technically, this is a film noir, with the usual night chases and games with shadows. Unfortunately, though, noir doesn't work as well in my humble opinion in the bright light of the Caribbean. Scenes aboard boats appear washed out and at times quite phony, with obvious rear-screen projections. A brilliant fireworks display climax somewhat salvages the noir ambiance, but really, if you are going to play the film noir game, best to stick with cityscapes and chases through northern cities.

The Bribe Vincent Price
Vincent Price as the hammy villain in "The Bribe."

Laughton once again runs away with a film in which he plays a secondary role. He was in the middle of a bit of a career slump at this time, and "The Bribe" helped him to recover.

The Bribe Charles Laughton
Charles Laughton turns in a wildly eccentric, but very effective, performance in "The Bribe".

Ava Gardner lights up the screen despite having little to do with anything, but watching Laughton play a down-on-his-luck bum is just mesmerizing..

The Bribe Charles Laughton Ava Gardner
Charles Laughton at his finest in "The Bribe."

 You will enjoy this film for Laughton's sheer brilliance, everything else is just icing on the cake.


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