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The Bribe

The Bribe(1949)

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teaser The Bribe (1949)

If there is an anomaly within Robert Z. Leonard's extensive filmography, it would have to be The Bribe (1949), a stylish suspense thriller that was not at all typical of Leonard's usual output for MGM. Lavish costume dramas, soap operas, and musicals were his specialty and The Bribe, with its sleazy setting and slippery characters, was far removed from the high-class settings of Pride and Prejudice (1940) and Ziegfeld Girl (1941), signature films for Leonard which were also huge successes at the box office. Not surprisingly, The Bribe was not a hit with critics or the public. Its convoluted plot - a Federal agent (Robert Taylor) infiltrates a ring of criminals trafficking in contraband war surplus materials - confused some with its periodic flashbacks. The tone of the film, which wavers between unintentional camp (check out those over-the-top performances by Charles Laughton and Vincent Price) and grim melodrama, also posed problems for viewers. But seen today, The Bribe is enormously entertaining and the final shootout sequence which takes place in the midst of an elaborate fireworks display is stunningly photographed by Joseph Ruttenberg. Some of the film may even appear familiar to you: Steve Martin lifted numerous sequences from it in his amusing homage to the private eye genre, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982).

The Bribe was the first of three films at MGM which teamed Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner (The other two were Ride, Vaquero! and Knights of the Round Table, both 1953). It was an arrangement that pleased Ms. Gardner enormously, as recounted in her biography, Ava: My Story: "Set on some fictitious island off the coast of Central America, which looked suspiciously like Mexico on MGM's all-purpose backlot, The Bribe had me tangentially connected to a nasty plot to smuggle surplus American aircraft engines into South America. I was excused from my usual slinky black dress and put into Mexican huaraches and fetching native blouses to match the climate. And though I seemed to be happy singing and dancing at the local cantina, my main job was to take one quick look at Mr. Taylor....and fall into his arms. This time, it not only happened on screen, it happened for real. There's no rhyme or reason about a love affair. In those days, I was in constant proximity to some of the most handsome, romantic figures on earth, and they didn't move me the slightest bit. Not that I didn't adore men. I did....But I was a one-man woman. I did not want a string of lovers. I had to like a man one hell of a lot to let him disturb my sleep. But since Howard Duff and I had split by that time, I was available. And Bob Taylor surely fit the bill for me, and I did the same for Bob...Our love affair lasted three, maybe four months. A magical little interlude."

While Gardner didn't win any prizes for her performance as the deceptive Elizabeth Hintten in The Bribe, almost everyone agreed she looked ravishing, despite her heavy partying off-camera. On the other hand, Robert Taylor, long stereotyped by MGM as their reigning matinee idol, was finally developing into a first rate actor who would go on to give his best performances in film noirs like Rogue Cop (1954) and Party Girl (1958). The Bribe was an important step in this direction, establishing Taylor as a hard-boiled, cynical hero but he wasn't at all fond of the film. He confessed to Gardner that he thought it "was one of the worst movies he'd ever made."

Ironically, the tough dialogue and sleazy underworld characters of The Bribe - usually the province of macho mystery writers like Dashiell Hammett - were created by Marguerite Roberts, who usually wrote screenplays specifically for MGM's major male talent like Clark Gable. Unfortunately, Roberts was very much the bohemian radical and her politics got her into serious trouble in the fifties. She was hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee in September 1951 and refused to cooperate. Consequently MGM terminated her contract and her name was removed from the screen credits of Ivanhoe, her final film for the studio

Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay: Frederick Nebel (story), Marguerite Roberts
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Costume Design: Irene
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Original Music: Nacio Herb Brown (song), William Katz, Miklós Rózsa
Principal Cast: Robert Taylor (Rigby), Ava Gardner (Elizabeth Hintten), Charles Laughton (J.J. Bealer), Vincent Price (Carwood), John Hodiak (Tug Hintten), Tito Renaldo (Emilio Gomez).
BW-98m. Closed Captioning.

by Jeff Stafford

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teaser The Bribe (1949)

MGM produced its share of film noir classics despite Louis B. Mayer's aversion to subject matter he deemed downbeat and sordid. Thus in 1949's The Bribe, a potentially interesting "small" story is given a deluxe production and an all-star cast. Rugged government agent Rigby (Robert Taylor) has come to the Central American island of Los Trancos to stop a racket smuggling Army airplane engines. Who might be in on the scam?

Dockside rat J. J. Bealer (Charles Laughton) offers Rigby a hefty bribe to walk away. Is the gorgeous club singer Elizabeth Hintten (Ava Gardner) really interested in Rigby, or is she part of the conspiracy too? The big local industrialist Carwood (Vincent Price) may or may not have tried to dump Rigby into shark-infested waters during a fishing trip. Rigby seems set to betray his mission and run off with Elizabeth, but her alcoholic husband Tug (John Hodiak) makes the first move, drugging the agent so the conspirators can make their escape. Robert Taylor pouts his way through a tough-guy narration and an explanatory flashback, but we never doubt that Rigby will do the right thing. Meanwhile, various minor players are eaten by sharks, etc.

Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg lays on the mysterioso lighting and Mikls Rsza's dynamic music must work hard to generate tension. The Hollywood Reporter was not impressed by Vincent Price and Charles Laughton's outsized performances. Behaving like Charles Dickens' Uriah Heep and complaining about his sore feet, Laughton's Bealer is too sleazy to bribe anyone. Not yet established as a film villain, Price nevertheless lays on the insincere manners and arch allusions as Carwood. Going against the noir grain, Ava Gardner is revealed to be a concerned wife, not a femme fatale. Newsweek thought the film looked overblown, especially the spectacular nighttime finish in which the un-touristy town of Los Trancos puts on a fireworks show as impressive as a Manhattan Fourth of July.

Film critics revisiting the blacklist years have rediscovered The Bribe's screenwriter Marguerite Roberts. Her burgeoning career was cut short in 1951 by HUAC, with her credit removed from MGM's superlative Robert Taylor movie Ivanhoe (1952). Seventeen years later, Roberts' fine screenplay for True Grit (1969) gave John Wayne his only Oscar win.

By Glenn Erickson

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