"The Bribe", today's feature, is a 1949 film directed by Robert Z. Leonard, written by Marguerite Roberts (based on a short story by Fredrick Nebel), and stars Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Charles Laughton (there are other actors in important roles, but these three give the most memorable performances). It's set in Central America, and follows the adventures of the federal agent known only as Rigby, as he attempts to shut down a ring of airplane engine smugglers or something (I was never too clear on the details). The framework is arguably unimportant; what is important is the stage it sets for various characters and complications.
Rigby is introduced, verbatim, as a "honest cop." His integrity is beyond question, which makes him the perfect choice to go down to Central America and stop airplane engine fraud (you wouldn't download an airplane engine, etc). Indeed, he is quickly approached with offers to make some quick cash by looking the other way. He proves his honesty by shooting these down, but in noirs everyone has a price, if not necessarily an amount you can measure in dollars, and Rigby is about to find this out...
Making the offers is J.J. Beeler, and I have to say his is just an ingenious performance of an incredibly strong character. Even before his official introduction, we see him lurking in the background of key scenes. He's been authorized to make financial transactions on behalf of his shady employers, but when that doesn't work he becomes an Iago figure, manipulating characters and playing them off each other. Despite - or perhaps because of- his unruly hair and sweaty mannerisms, he seems more intelligent than any of the other characters in the film, possessing a dignity even frequent references by Rigby to his "pie-shaped" figure can't rob him of. Laughton delivers his lines with Hitchockian emphasis, bringing some gravitas to the whole affair that makes the film instantly richer with every plot complication he introduces.
The femme love interest of the film is named Elizabeth Hintten, and is played by Ava Gardner. She is, like so many other female characters in noirs, a singer at a local nightclub, but she is also tied up in the airplane engine racket; her husband, an alcoholic played by John Hodiak, is a key man in the scheme. She is mostly a victim, at least according to my interpretation; her ill-thought out marriage has as its consequence a whole mess of complications, legal or otherwise. If her husband goes down, she might go down too, much to Rigby's chagrin.
The film is relies on characters that I haven't talked about to get the plot going. Emilio Gomez, for example, is a local boy who helps get Rigby on the tail of big boss Harwood. However, I have to admit, characters such as these aren't excessively characterized: Emilio the innocent, the sinister Harwood. What's most interesting about the film is how those caught in the middle, the J.J.'s, the Elizabeths, scheme and try to stay afloat in the wake of the chess game played between law and crime.
The film is about integrity, really, and about temptation, the kinds of temptation that aren't easily scorned because they're so material, but rather cut deeper, into our hearts and souls. People's lives are used as poker chips in the hands of skilled players who have no qualms in playing them against each other. This film is for those who think they're above it, that think nobody can touch them. Everyone has a price, and everyone can be played.
So I'm gonna do something different. I'm gonna dispense with the recommendation or whatever, as I invariably am like "yeah, see this." Instead, I'm going to leave it to you, the hypothetical reader, to make the choice based on the above. I'll also akwardly say again that Laughton's performance is really top notch stuff.
Best line: "Everybody grafts nowadays. That's the way people operate," delivered cynically by Laughton.