' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bribe (1949)

Friday, November 02, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bribe (1949)

“The Bribe” opens with a voiceover. Rigby (Robert Taylor), in his hotel room on the island of Carlotta off the coast of central America, smoking a cigarette, watching a storm kick up, laments his fate in monologue. But he is not, mind you, speaking to us, as voiceovers often do, explaining, telling. No, the words quickly betray that he is speaking to himself, which director Robert Z. Leonard underlines by showing Rigby looking at himself in the mirror, the camera not looking over his shoulder but from the side, like he’s two men. In a way, he is, or comes to be, as the movie flashes back, with a neat dissolve in that mirror, to the beginning of Rigby’s story to explain how he got here. Yet this opening is not the ending either. It is midway through, and when the action circles back around, the voiceover continues, Rigby is still talking to himself in the present tense, suggesting voices in his head. That confliction, however, is more prominent in the voiceovers than it ever is Taylor’s performance, never mind the movie, which proves to be most conflicted about what it wants to be.

The flashback begins with Rigby, a federal agent, assigned to central America to bust up a ring illegally selling surplus WWII aircraft engines. That’s a potentially intriguing plot point, suggesting the leftovers of a valorous cause being used in the service of evil, though the movie just employs it as a plot instigator, uninterested in its emblematic overtones. No, the elements here suggest a traditional noir, as the man Rigby’s sent to check out as a prime suspect, scurrilous drunk Tug Hintten (John Hodiak), whose name suggests future President Tug Benson’s ne’er-do-well father, is married to Elizabeth (Ava Gardner), the prospective Femme Fatale. She is a part-time singer at a nightclub where Rigby first encounters her as the movie stops dead in its track to simply give itself over to Gardner’s presence, rendering it believable that a federal agent might well think about renouncing his oath to run off.

From there, however, the character of Elizabeth blossoms, sort of, into something apart from her apparent archetype. She might well be attractive, even seductive, and she does lead Rigby down the primrose path, all characteristics of a femme fatale, but the script also takes care to garner sympathy on her behalf. Though she is tempted by Rigby, and though he is tempted by her, she remains devoted to her husband, whose alcoholism and anger issues, she explains, stem directly from his experiences in WWII. This, alas, is another un-pulled thread suggesting the dire mental state of post-war America as Tugg becomes nothing more than a plot device, a means to tease out the romance of Rigby and Elizabeth and to be utilized as leverage over Rigby. This is a love triangle of convenience more than illicetness.

No, the sinister elements of this noir are instead found in Carwood (Vincent Price) who masquerades as friend and quickly reveals himself as foe, the preeminent foe, along with Bealer (Charles Laughton), the bagman go-between for foe and federal agent. Price extracts considerable mileage just from his fiendish grin, but it’s Laughton who stands out. In his slovenly, cheerfully vile air his bagman comes across like someone who’s made peace with a fallen world and is only too happy to switch sides so long as it suits him.

In a way, the script seems to call for Rigby to go the way of Bealer by turning his back on his government employers and falling in with Elizabeth, though Taylor is less convincing in these moments, his five o’clock shadow doing the possibly depraved lifting more than his own acting. But in another way, the script seems to not want Rigby to go the way of Bealer at all, which is why it makes sure that Tugg is written out of the movie, to ensure that it is ethically acceptable when Rigby goes off with Elizabeth. That curbs so much of the noirish moral ambiguity and undermines an otherwise visually appealing final shootout where despite the pizazz of a fireworks celebration, “The Bribe” fizzles out.

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