John Huston, 1948
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore
Frank McCloud, a former soldier, travels to Hotel Largo in Key Largo, Florida, in order to pay respects following the death of a friend and fellow soldier. McCloud is greeted by his widow, the lovely Nora Temple, and his father, James Temple, the hotel owner. Due to an impending hurricane, there are only a handful of guests in the hotel, but McCloud soon comes to realize that they are gangsters only pretending to be on a fishing trip. The Temples, along with Frank, are soon taken hostage by Johnny Rocco, a fearsome gangster who has been hiding out in Cuba, but has come to Florida for a nefarious business deal. After a night of murder and psychological torture, Rocco convinces Frank – under threat of death – to captain a small boat, which will take the gangsters back to Cuba. But will Frank survive the trip?
Adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s play of the same name, Key Largo is generally considered part of Humphrey Bogart’s cycle of film noir entries, but it diverges from traditional noir quite a bit. While there are some film noir elements – the lonely, isolated soldier incapable of action, themes of crime and violence – this is more of a throwback to the gangster films of the ‘30s. The existential angst and obvious weariness felt by McCloud gives the film a noir flavor, but there is little moral ambiguity and the lines between good and bad are drawn firmly in the Key Largo sand. Frank is somewhere between the kind, morally upstanding Temples, who are beloved by the community, and the menacing gangster Johnny Rocco. Franco’s only true moral ambiguity is his initial failure to act. Despite his military training, he is initially interested in self-preservation and believes that killing one Rocco out of hundreds of similar criminals can have no real meaning. Due to his growing feelings for Nora, he comes to change his mind and the film has a romantic, happy conclusion where order is inevitably restored.
Director John Huston – one of the finest early American auteurs – also helmed The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, Moby Dick, Casino Royale, and more. The direction itself is effective, if fairly nondescript. Though some of the hurricane footage was taken from stock reels, the film benefits from the dependable cinematography of Karl Freund, one of Hollywood’s hardest working German expatriates. Huston also worked regularly with his close friend, Bogie, and possibly his finest work on Key Largo was in casting.
There are some truly great performances from a bevy of dependable talent. The film’s lack of a clear, central protagonist is tricky, but seems to be less a fault of the writing and more a juggling acting between the huge talent on screen and a number of forceful personalities. Bogart is wonderful, as always, even though he plays a variation of his own stock character here: the embittered war vet who has a wide romantic streak, despite the fact that he is a sullen loner.
Lauren Bacall looks lovely and is likable, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do as Nora. Her real-life chemistry with Bogart goes a long way towards making the characters and their plight believable. This would be their last film together. Bacall also has excellent chemistry with the enjoyable Lionel Barrymore, sort of an ultimate father figure here. Film noir actress Claire Trevor (Murder, My Sweet) is excellent as Rocco’s downtrodden, alcoholic girlfriend clinging desperately to an abusive relationship. She won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress that year and richly deserved it. Her best scene is an impromptu, allegedly unrehearsed rendition of “Moanin’ Low,” which conveys the utter desperation of her character, essentially a washed up gangster’s moll.
It is Edgar G. Robinson, though, who steals the film right out from under Bogart. Robinson was one of the primary gangster actors in the ‘30s and seems to be reprising that role for the last time here as the complex, despicable Johnny Rocco. Charismatic yet cruel, cowardly yet murderous, Rocco is a compelling character, one you can’t take your eyes off of, despite his more unsavory traits and repressive, controlling nature. One of the film’s most interesting aspects is its treatment of Rocco and the infamous world that surrounds him. Key Largo is intentionally set after WWII, after the repeal of Prohibition. Life is tough for the gangsters and has become unglamorous. They pine often for the pre-war years and hope that chaotic, lawlessness of the past will return.
Key Largo is available on DVD and comes recommended, particularly to Bogie fans and anyone interested in gangster films. It’s an unusual twist on the typical gangster formula and though considered a classic, the film is underrated and worth unearthing.