Released Feb 3, 1949: THE BRIBE, starring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Charles Laughton, and Vincent Price. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard (The Great Zigfield, The Pride and Prejudice, The Man from Down Under). This star-studded noir gets a lot of things right but does have its weak points. Robert Taylor is a Federal agent sent to the fictional South American island of Carlotta in the guise of a vacationing fisherman to investigate a smuggling operation that deals in stolen military airplane engines. He initially targets two primary suspects, a drunk gambler (John Hodiak), and his beautiful wife (Ava Gardner). Taylor ends up spending a lot of time with Gardner while tracking Hodiak’s movements, and a romance quickly develops between them, which becomes the focus of the story until Charles Laughton comes forward and offers Taylor a handsome bribe to have him stop his investigation. The plot thickens when Vincent Price, a seemingly fun-loving vacationer, arrives on the island. When Price and Taylor go out on a fishing boat together, Price deliberately stages an “accident”, causing Taylor to fall overboard in shark-infested waters. The plot muddles around with more attempted bribes, a murder, and a dose of treachery, until the film’s spectacular climax in the village streets during a fiesta fireworks show. Except for the shark scene and the fireworks finale, the plot has very little action. It’s a very talky crime story with fairly slow pacing, which wouldn’t be an issue if the film had a more charismatic lead character. But unfortunately, Taylor delivers a rather lifeless performance, which only serves to accentuate the languid pace. There’s nothing particularly sympathetic or compelling about his character, and he barely contributes any chemistry to his romance with Gardner. For her part, Gardner has some clever dialog exchanges with Taylor in the early going, but once things become romantic between them, she is unable to generate enough heat to overcome Taylor’s impassive performance, but still does an admirable job considering the circumstances. However, it’s Laughton who owns this film. He plays a disheveled mess of a character in a rumpled suit with unkempt hair and aching feet, who sweats profusely in the sweltering heat. Laughton infuses his character with so much inner vitality that he easily steals every scene he’s in. His performance is definitely the highlight of the movie. Visually, this film is a treat for the eyes. The South American island atmosphere is sumptuously conveyed through a variety of richly flavored locations, such as rustic hotels, tropical night clubs, busy boat docks, and village streets. The scenes at sea, navigating around the smugglers’ island hideout, provide additional visual variety, and as mentioned earlier, the film’s climax amid the fireworks show is an inspired cinematic spectacle. Overall, The Bribe is a very good crime noir set in an interesting location, highlighted by a standout performance from Laughton, but is undermined somewhat by Taylor’s tepid lead. We give The Bribe 3.5 out of 5 fedoras.