Being a master of light-hearted musicals and comedies for MGM throughout the 1930s, director Robert Leonard was a bizarre choice for the studio’s 1949 thriller The Bribe, which Carl Reiner’s gave new life to in 1982 when he lifted heaps of scenes for his ingenious spoof, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid starring Steve Martin.
This moody film noir, based on a story by detective fiction author Frederick Nebel, found Robert Taylor’s US federal agent Rigby arriving on the Caribbean island of Carlota to break up a smuggling ring dealing in contraband war surplus run by Vincent Price and Charles Laughton, who chew the scenery as an evil mastermind and his seedy flunky.
But the games afoot when Rigby meets Ava Gardner’s sultry café singer Elizabeth, who just happens to be the wife of one of his chief suspects – alcoholic fighter pilot Tig Hintten (John Hodiak).
While the film was met with mixed reviews – MGM is said to have made a loss of some $322,000 following its release on 3 February 1949 – director Leonard and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg (who went on to score a Golden Globe for Brigadoon) dressed their chiaroscuro-infused black and white thriller with some now trademark 1940s visual touches (rain-drenched windows, mirror images), while the cast smoked, smouldered, smothered and sweated on a claustrophobic MGM backlot.
For Price fans, however, this film is a ‘dinner winner’ as his icy Carwood is one of the suavest villains in his career repertoire – he even gets a dazzling, but disturbing (in mine’s eye), gun chase demise in a pyrotechnic climax that was alledgedly filmed by Vincente Minnelli (which you can see below).
‘If you plan to put down your money to see the Capitol’s The Bribe, we suggest that you be prepared to write off this extravagance as a folly and nothing more. For The Bribe‘ is the sort of temptation which Hollywood put in the way of gullible moviegoers about twenty years ago. It’s a piece of pure romantic fiction, as lurid as it is absurd. And if it didn’t have several big ‘names’ in it, it would be low-man on a ‘grind house’ triple-bill…The only hint which the director, Robert Z Leonard, gives that he may have meant it all as pure nonsense comes at the very end, when he blows up the place with pyrotechnics. That’s the one appropriate move in the whole show.’ Bosley Crowther
‘Price and Laughton make a formidable pair of heavies in this otherwise feeble thriller shot on a cheaply rigged-up corner of the MGM backlot. Taylor isn’t up to moral dilemma as a US government agent sent to crack illicit aircraft engine trading in the Caribbean, yet tempted by a lucrative cash offer and the irresistible charm of café chanteuse Gardner.’ Time Out
‘Steamy melodrama with pretensions but only moderate entertainment value despite high gloss. The rogues gallery, however, are impressive.’ Leslie Halliwell
‘In classic noir style, the chain smoking Rigby (he has no Christian name) tells most of the story in flashbacks that begin as visions he sees on the rain-lashed window of his hotel room. His voiceover narration continues as he battles with his conscience and tries to retain his honour in a world reeking of corruption. Laughton and Price are splendidly hammy villains and Gardners nightclub singer is an innocent femme fatale in the manner of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda.’ Karl French and Philip French, Cult Movies