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: