Shots in the Dark

THE BRIBE is a film I’ve long wanted to see, maybe partly because of those clips in DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID. Robert Z. Leonard’s 1949 noir provides the footage of Charles Laughton, Vincent Price and bits of Ava Gardner, recycled into DEAD MEN’s patchwork plot. The name “Carlotta”, upon which the Steve Martin / Carl Reiner movie turns, also comes from THE BRIBE.

Ultimately, nostalgia for the spoof is much of the reason for watching Leonard’s film — it’s a minor movie which rarely catches fire, despite an exotic, sultry setting and a lurid rogue’s gallery of villains. Robert Taylor is too dull and earnest to seem in danger of corruption, even by Ava, and for added bore factor there’s John Hodiak. At least the role of tortured drunk gives J.H. something to get his teeth into.

Apart from Gardner’s singing and complaining about the heat (Ava Gardner complaining about the heat is a strangely erotic spectacle), the main point of interest comes right before the climax, where Leonard suddenly pulls out all the stops and produces a whole bunch of weird tropes.

A tiny, sweltering hotel room. Taylor has Vincent Price at gunpoint, even firing off a warning shot to stop Vinnie leaving. Charles Laughton, his face a sweaty pudding, watches anxiously, eyes darting from one combatant to the other. Leonard films Price from a low angle, emphasising his authority and weirdly graceless bulk.

With lupine cunning, Price swipes the light switch to OFF, and the room goes black. Taylor fires, and price fires back, muzzle-flare piercing the gloom in angry strobes.

Leonard’s camera (actually, cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg’s) swishes anxiously around, scanning the velvet darkness for signs of life and danger. It doesn’t seem to be tied to anybody’s P.O.V.

Madly, Laughton’s eyes are still darting about, the only things perceptible in the all-encompassing night. We realise that Laughton has been got up in black-face just for this moment, so that his eyes can hover in the dark like a cartoon’s.

Taylor glides into piecemeal visibility, his body criss-crossed by countless unmotivated diagonal shadows.

Laughton’s disembodied orbs float silently back into obscurity.

BANG! Fireworks erupt outside (it’s the Fiesta di Carlotta), visible through the window by virtue of rear projection, but because the cameraman who shot them had to pan about a bit to keep the flashes framed correctly, the bursts of Greek Fire seem to swim madly around, as if the hotel had come loose from its foundations and started drifting to and fro, like Dorothy’s house on the way to Oz (Friends of Dorothy / Friends of Carlotta?)

Price, a perfect profile in silhouette, takes aim: he sees Taylor illuminated by the pyrotechnics. His shot shatters the dresser mirror — it was only Taylor’s reflection he saw. Having thus compressed the entire climax of Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI into one shot, Leonard relaxes slightly for the chase and fight climax, which is nevertheless photographically rather impressive:

19 Responses to “Shots in the Dark”

  1. The career of Robert Z. Leonard supports Gore Vidal’s contention that directors don’t matter. He’s the ideal “Brother-in-law” (Gore says they’re the ones who got the job.) I must admit to enjoying several of his films including Susan Lennox: Her Fall and Rise (Garbo at her trashiest) and In the Good Old Summertime — which contains my very favorite Judy Garland number. But I’d be hard-pressed to say what he actually does in his films — though you’ve certainly taken up that challenge.

  2. It’s hard to say where this sequence comes from: nothing in Leonard’s career relates to it, and even his hugely experienced cameraman doesn’t really have form in the field of baroque weirdness. One suspects another director must have sneaked in! The best explanation might be Laughton himself suggesting some ideas…

    Leonard made some fine films, but there’s no overall personality connecting A Day at the Races to The Bribe.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    One director’s output doesn’t prove that they don’t matter or that they are all brother-in-laws. ”In The Good Old Dummertime” isn’t that interesting for one thing save that it has some good moments. Like it has Buster Keaton and it does nothing with him however Keaton is fantastic in that scene and his gag which is undoubtedly his is the best part of the film.

    That said, for what it’s worth my favourite director as brother-in-law is Lloyd Bacon who co-directed some Busby Berkeley musicals and has a James Cagney masterpiece ”Picture Snatcher” to his credit.

  4. Oh, Bacon has a LOT of really impressive films to his name. Of course, I always confuse him with other Warners staples like Roy Del Ruth and Mervyl LeRoy, so offhand I can’t say how many, but LOTS.

    Gore V worked with William Wyler, who was a nephew of Universal boss Carl Laemmle, maybe that helped him forge his theory. But Wyler was a kind of instinctual dramatic genius.

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Lloyd Bacon started out as an actor and he’s interesting in Chaplin’s ”The Floorwalker”, one of his 12 films at Mutual(the company where he made his most sophisticated short films). He essentially plays the Tramp’s doppelganger and quite good. One of the most memorable supporting turns in Chaplin’s filmography.
    Which other excellent films do you suggest of his. ”Picture Snatcher” is one of the best films of the early 30’s and a great example of a cross between the gangster film, the newspaper comedy and…I don’t know. And Ralph Bellamy has a supporting turn in that film that reveals a meanness and vitality absent in the films he did opposite Cary Grant.

    Gore V worked with William Wyler, who was a nephew of Universal boss Carl Laemmle, maybe that helped him forge his theory. But Wyler was a kind of instinctual dramatic genius.

    He was. The film Vidal made with Wyler was ”Ben-Hur” and that can’t really be used to form an idea of Wyler. It’s like forming an idea on Fritz Lang based on “An American Guerilla in the Phillipines”.

  6. Gore’s ideas about film (which are quite complex and interesting) are all contained within the pages of Myra Berckinridge and it’s great (and sadly unsung) sequel Myron. In the former Gore sends up (rather sweetly I think ) Parker Tyler. The latter is his funniest attack on Truman Capote to date, mixed with a wild variation on the first book climaxing with Myra “becoming” Maria Montez during the shooting of Siren of Atlantis.

  7. On checking out Bacon’s CV I find little of what I expected. He was responsible for a memorable travesty, the 1930 Moby Dick. And quite a few classic Berkeleys. By the late 30s he seems played out. Miss Grant Takes Richmond, scripted by Tashlin, is extraordinarily weak.

    Wyler’s versaitility is such that it’s hard to get “a picture of him” without seeing EVERYTHING. Ben-Hur basically shows a gift for imparting gravitas to hokum, but he’s about much much more than that.

    But I’m not sure American Guerrilla shows ANYTHING about Lang.

    Ralph Bellamy = great all-rounder.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Wyler seemed most at home with theatre adaptations or chamber pieces. Kind of like a George Cukor(‘cept minus the humour). That said I always liked ”Ben-Hur” for some reason or the other. Part of it may be because of Vidal’s genius idea of making Marsala a scorned lover of Charlton Heston’s. The chariot scene is also interesting(it had Sergio Leone as a co-director who claimed that Wyler used the big Colleseum set as an excuse to do a re-take of ”The Big Country” also starring Charlton Heston, so obsessive was Wyler in his retakes) which was technically directed by Andrew Marton, the Slavko Vorkapisch of the epic spectacular.

    So maybe directors don’t matter. That said, my appreciation for ”Ben-Hur” also stems from the fact that it’s not the only film in the world. If it was, I’d be using it as a cudgel to talk about how superior theatre, opera, literature is and why cinema can’t ever be a serious artform.

    Wyler when asked about “Ben-Hur” said sheepishly, “It takes a Jew to tell a story like that.”

    Was that the same “Moby-Dick” where Captain Ahab has a relationship with Father Mapple’s daughter played by a super-young Joan Bennett? It has such a nice happy ending though. Wish it weren’t so ridiculous.

  9. Yes, that’s the same Moby. I’m about to get a copy of it, I think.

    Cukor preserves a theatricality that I don’t find in Wyler. He seems to me inherently filmic, at least in fits and starts. His dramatic sense is incredible, his technique sometimes equal to it.

    I enjoy Ben-Hur too. I think DeToth was mixed up in the chariot race. Leone was basically on crowd control and Marton basically handled it, to Wyler’s specifications. Wyler, who has been an AD on the Fred Niblo version, cast an eye over the assembled crew and pondered “I wonder which of these poor bastards is going to be making this thirty years from now?”

  10. Arthur S. Says:

    Erratum : Leone wasn’t a co-director(he was nowhere near qualified at that time to be at that level). He was an Assistant Director to one of the cameras on one of the chariots.

  11. I like Wyler’s work with Bette Davis, best. Also his breakout film of Elmer Rice’s Counselor-at-Law with John Barrymore, a great supporting cast and one of the greatest sets I’ve ever scene in a motion picture (an enormous modern law office.)

    And of course I adore The Collector with Terry Stamp.

    BTW, Robert Z. Leonard is the director of “Myra’s” favorite movie — Marriage is a Private Affair with Lana Turner and James Criag. This is by way of tribute to Tennessee Williams who did an uncredited dialogue polish on the film.

    On his deathbed the film’s original screenwriter, Ring Lardner Jr. complained — not of Williams’ efforts, but of L.B. Mayer’s decision to turn his script into what Tennessee called “a celluloid brassiere for Miss Lana Turner.”

    Actually Lana’s the best thing in it –especially in a scene where she does a spirited mambo, as only she could.

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    My favourite Wyler is ”Carrie” and ”The Heiress”(one of the most bitter, caustic films from Hollywood, so nasty that it makes ”Sweet Smell of Success!” look like a Frank Capra pageant…but then Capra was pretty nasty himself in his films). His ”Dead End” the first and best of the Dead-End kids films is for my money underrated. ”Dodsworth” is perhaps his masterpiece. ”The Collector” is a great late Wyler. I also like ”Roman Holiday” a lot.

  13. For me: Counsellor-at-Law, These Three, The Little Foxes, The Heiress, Carrie, Roman Holiday (he DID have a sense of humour), Dodsworth.

    And I like most of the others a lot. The early talkies need to be made available though.

    Nice turn by Vincent Sherman in Counsellor-at-Law!

  14. Nice turns by Thelma Todd and Mayo Methot too.

  15. Ah, Thelma! Has anybody tried holding a seance to see if she can tell us if she was murdered? Seems like a logical step.

  16. “Ah — so it was moider!”

    Of course, Todd’s garage asphyxiation does suggest one likely suspect — Ida Lupino!

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