KEY LARGO, 1948
Directed by John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Edward G Robinson, Claire Trevor
Review by Kitt McKenzie
Set in the Florida keys ex-GI Frank McCloud comes to visit the widow and father of a comrade who was killed in the war. Nora Temple now runs the hotel ‘Key Largo’ and cares for her invalid father-in-law, James Temple. Frank is a welcome guest, far more welcome than the mobster Johnny Rocco, his alcoholic girlfriend and the assortment of mobsters Johnny surrounds himself.
Rocco has rented the hotel for a reason. There’s something going down but as the hurricane gathers force outside Rocco finds his plans unravelling. Frank McCloud can tell something is up but, as much as he would like to act, he has become reluctant to use violence after all the pointless deaths he saw in the war. Rocco’s cruelty knows no bounds as a group of Indians needing shelter from the storm are denied entry to the hotel by him and die as a result. McCloud is forced to examine this reluctance in the face of Nora Temple’s disgust at his cowardice, the death of a policeman and the needless waste of other innocent lives. Overcoming his initial reluctance Frank McCloud plays the hero once again and deals with Rocco and his men. And of course he gets the girl.
OSCAR WINNER for Best Actress in a Supporting Role -Claire Trevor
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In many ways ‘Key Largo’ confounds expectations in that it’s never quite the film that you think it’s going to be. The original tagline declared “A storm of fear and fury in the sizzling Florida Keys !” but this belies the subdued nature of much of the story. There is a lack on sensationalism that supports the solid telling of the plot and the considered development of the characters. The film touches on some of the key changes that had happened in the mind set and psyche of Americans following the end of World War 2. In many ways Key Largo is a film that sits on the edge of the Film Noir Genre. While it contains many of the elements of traditional film noir it also subverts many of these elements for it’s own satisfaction. The hero of this film starts out by being a pacifist. He resorts to violence only when he has run out of all other options.
The character of Frank McCloud is a gentler one than Bogart usually plays. This is a man that has to be pushed into action, and who takes that step only after innocent lives have already been lost. This is not a character, like many that Bogart played, that seeks out and craves action and violence, and who act8ively pursues the destruction of others. Frank is a rootless man, someone who is drifting since the war. He is offered the chance of a family. There is a hint that Nora used to be like Frank, a loner and a drifter, rootless in society, and there is a further insinuation that if she found a home at Key Largo so can he. Frank is also a man who is smarter than everyone else around him and who does his best most of the time to hide it. At the culmination of the story Frank takes over the boat on the way to Cuba through trickery and guile and only then kills quickly, cleanly and with the minimum amount of fuss. He out smarts the mobsters and then out guns them. It is a combination of brains and brawn that finally defeats the bad guys.
The teaming of Bogart and Bacall, an infamous one, that works beautifully no matter what film they are in together lends gravitas to the movie. The spark between them is one of the main ingredients that makes this film so punchy to watch. Edward G Robinson gives the audience a master class in how to create a character who is flailing around trying to hold onto the life he’s literally killed for and the only life he understands. He is reduced at the end to a lone figure, stripped of every associate and ally. There is a look in his eye that tells the audience that he knows that it’s all over but he’s going to go on fighting because that is what he does. Lionel Barrymore also turns in a sterling supporting performance as the physically disabled man who communicates his lack of bitterness over the death of his son without malice, schmaltz or by resorting to clichés. He is a significant character, despite initial appearances, as he often plays the moderator between the sides offering a balanced view of the situations being played out.
The best use is made on the encroaching weather and the pressure cooker effect of the environment is mirrored in the situation that is playing out inside the hotel. The gathering storm mirrors the increasing tensions and the wildness of the characters emotions and actions that can be contained only for so long. The hurricane puts Rocco on edge and the stories told by the old man is a demonstration in mind games that unsettle the mobster even further.
This film has some interesting things to say about the nature of power and the way that power is used and enforced. Rocco is a mobster whose power has diminished, he’s on the run and losing his influence. What asked by McCloud what he wants Rocco seems unable to give a straight answer and it’s very simply because he doesn’t have one. Hanging out at ‘Key Largo’ he’s taking a chance because it’s the only chance he has left. Rocco does his best to control and manipulate and his struggle to control his working life is reflected in his relationship with his girlfriend. Rocco’s lack of power is epitomised in their relationship as he cannot keep hold of her, even with alcohol that she’s addicted to, and she eventually switches allegiances and works for the good guys.
In addition to Rocco’s struggles with power of various kinds every other character seems to add something to either side of the argument that is being played out beneath the action. Frank’s initial refusal to fight forces another man to take action. That man is killed. James Temple, the old man is confined to a wheel chair, and he is a figurative example of a man who has had his power taken away from him. But he is also a man who is torn between the virtues of violent action and passive resistance. Nora’s power is in convincing Frank to finally take action.
All the talk about power and action versus inaction feeds into a debate about the nature of heroics and cowardice; duty to oneself or duty to a wider group of people. The question is posed: Is it cowardice only to serve ourselves? There is no doubt that this is a very dialogue heavy film, there is plenty of talk but that does not mean that there is no action. Considered it may be but it is neither slow nor ponderous. Key Largo poses many questions, turns them over, examines them but does it in a fully entertaining way, the dram and the motivation of the piece making this a lively debate and not a quiet conversation.