CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
“The Bribe” is one of those films that’s never been thought of as a great film noir, yet it’s so perfect in its iconography and so typical in its plotting that it can serve as a virtual textbook on what makes a film noir. It’s part of a cycle of films in which a government agent is sent in to investigate a racket. Usually the action takes place in an American city, but “The Bribe” is set on an island off the coast of Central America. It’s hot there. It’s very hot, and everyone sweats, even star Robert Taylor whose white suit looks positively wilted. The racket being investigated is one of war profiteering, specifically in the re-sale of surplus airplane motors. The brains of racket is Vincent Price who enters the story as an apparent red-herring, a smug, pontificating businessman/gasbag who razzs “tourist” Taylor for his lack of business initiative. His man in Carlota is Charles Laughton who does an interesting turn here. Usually, Laughton’s villains are men of power and authority like Earl Janoth of “The Big Clock” or Haake, the Gestapo interrogator of “Arch of Triumph,” but here he plays one, Bieler, aka “the pie-shaped man,” a sly but cowardly soul, obsessed by his aching feet and completely under the thumb of Price’s suave but murderous profiteer. Laughton sticks to Taylor like a flea, tempting and cajoling him to look the other way. He offers money, but money isn’t enough. Enter Ava Gardner.
Since the scam involves airplane motors, a pilot is needed somewhere. This would be John Hodiak’s grounded, alcoholic ex-pilot who’s married to Gardner. Gardner sings at the local hot spot and seduces Taylor with her first steamy song. You can see the almost mythic outlines of the plot emerging here, not surprisingly since the original story was written by Frederick Nebel, a master of the hard-boiled style of crime fiction. There’s an illicit romantic triangle consisting of a fallible hero, a loser and a femme fatale, a bad guy who hides behind the scenes and our fallible hero happens to be a government agent who everyone knows is an agent, and who is manipulating and in turn being manipulated by these various players. Hodiak lets Price and Laughton use Gardner to ensnare Taylor; Taylor romances Gardner to learn more about the set-up and Gardner romances Taylor in a vain attempt to shield her alcoholic and dying husband. The visuals keep pace. Everything is at once exotic and shadowy–only the scenes at sea in which Taylor and a local fisherman attempt to locate Price’s stash of contraband airplane engines open up the action and literally allow some fresh air to blow thorough the steamy atmospherics. The bulk of the film is a flashback–another hallowed noir tradition–bookended first by an approaching storm and then by the storm finally breaking.
The film’s frantic climax in which Taylor pursues Price through streets in the throws of a local fiesta with singing, dancing and mob scenes galore was the work of Vicente Minnelli, taking over from the workmanlike Robert Z. Leonard. Although neither director could remotely be considered “a film noir specialist,” Minnelli was an expert at creating a flamboyant mise-en-scene and his master stroke was to stage the final shoot out between Taylor and Price against the backdrop of a huge fireworks display. It’s no surprise that Carl Reiner used “The Bribe” to provide a suitably over-the-top finale to his film noir send-up “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.” Everything in this plush M.G.M. production is so extreme that it only needs a little nudge to push it into parody. Fortunately “The Bribe” manages to keep its balance better than the beleaguered agent Rigby.