Director: John Houston
“You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it..”
Key Largo is the fourth and final film starring the legendary ‘Bogart & Bacall’ pairing (both on screen and in life), following on from 1944’s To Have and Have Not,1946’sThe Big Sleep, and 1947’s Dark Passage. Based on a 1939 play, the plot this time round is pretty simple, avoiding the murder-mystery elements of the previous two movies and focusing instead on building up tension between a select group of characters in an enclosed, claustrophobic environment. Bogart plays the role of Frank McCloud, a WWII veteran vising the father and wife (played by Bacall) of his deceased war buddy. They own a small hotel out on Key Largo, an island located down in the Florida Keys. The only complication he finds upon getting there is that the hotel has been taken over by a small gang of hoodlums, a drunken nightclub crooner, a captured police officer, and an unseen mob boss, later revealed as Johnny Rocco (played by Little Caesar star Edward G. Robinson) – a notorious hoodlum previously deported from American and trying to smuggle his way back in, alongside carrying out a deal with some local crooks for the delivery of counterfeit money. Unfortunately for all involved, a hurricane is making its way to Key Largo that same night, causing the residents to buckle in for the night, hoping for the storm to pass before being (quite literally) blown away – be it from the storm or each other.
Directed by John Huston (who previously directed Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and would go on to direct him in 1951’s The African Queen), the film is a fairly straight-forward character study into a group of people from opposite ends of life, forced together in a situation resulting by the destructive powers of nature. The focus is entirely on character development rather than mysteries or any convoluted criminal investigation. It’s a pretty competent and certainly an enjoyable 96 minutes, and although it lacks some of the chemistry and dialogue of Bogart’s best pictures, it makes up for it thanks to Robinson and some excellent stand-alone scenes which keep things interesting.
Much like it was in Dark Passage, the on-screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall is not the smoking fire it was in To Have and Have Not or, especially, The Big Sleep. Maybe it was because by the time of filming the second set of films, Bogart and Bacall were married and were no longer having to live their relationship vicariously through their performances, plus the natural passage of time arguably removed the initial bust of flirtatious energy between them. Even with that in mind though, their performances (especially Bogart’s) are rather subdued – the script doesn’t have many of the one-liners of witty dialogue that Bogart boasted best, and the relationship between characters isn’t the same as it was in other movies – Bogart being a weary-eyed veteran (with certain traits of Casablanca’s Rick Blaine’s being brought back to light), visiting the widow of his old friend, rather than some self-assured PI or hoodlum. Bacall, rather than being the sexual powerhouse, is a sweet and (relatively) innocent widow just trying to learn more about the death of her husband, and who is more interested in protecting her crippled father from Rocco’s increasing descent into madness than in lusting after Bogart.
Truth be told though, the main reason they seem less interesting this time around is more likely down to Edward G Robinson – despite the fame and success of the Bogart-Bacall pairing, he steals the movie out from under them. His character is very much a homage to the roles he played in the 1930s (not least of all the title character in Little Caesar – reviewed previously here). He plays a self-important, powerful egomaniac who lives the obligatory mobster high life full of cigars, women and obedient underlings. He takes visible pride in tormenting those around him, particularly his drunken mistress Gaye Dawn (played in an Oscar-winning role by Claire Trevor). One of the standout scenes mentioned above is where Dawn, desperate for a drink to calm her nerves from the ongoing storm battering the hotel, is forced by Rocco to sing a rendition of an old nightclub number from her younger days for the amusement of all those around, in the feint hopes that he will grant her a scotch and water. She sings poorly and fearfully, only to be rejected by Rocco at the end, who clearly relishes in the suffering he caused (even if Bogart does step in to serve the drink – rewarded himself with a few slaps from Rocco). It’s a powerful scene and establishes a certain dark chemistry between Robinson and Trevor – one which, frankly, overshadows the one between Bogart and Bacall. That said, Robinson overshadows all the other cast, including Bogart – although there is one excellent scene with the two characters squaring off against each other with pistols in their hands – Rocco offering to let McCloud shoot him, in the knowledge that he will be shot back, and McCloud having to choose where “one Johnny Rocco is worth dying for” (it turns out – he’s not). It’s made all the easier by virtue of the fact that (once Robison appears about a third of the way through), all the characters are constantly situated alongside each other, thus preventing the Bogart-Bacall relationship from developing away from Robinson. But then to do that would have gone against the point of the film – one group of people, trapped together against nature and their own paranoias. Rocco’s particular descent into madness, growing increasingly fearful of the storm around him, is particularly satisfying.
The film ends in a climatic shot out involving Bogart and Rocco’s gang aboard a boat on which he is forced to take the crew back to Cuba. It’s well-shot, and Robinson again steals the scene when he’s left with only a gun and a door between himself and Bogart – it’s here where Bogart comes across perhaps the least satisfying. His character is silent as Rocco is left shouting from his cabin, desperately trying to do a deal with an unresponsive McCloud, only to be greeted with silence, causing him to become even more desperate and dramatic in his final moments. In terms of providing a fitting ending for Robinson’s character, it works well, but one is left wondering whether more could have been made of Bogart.
Overall, Key Largo is enjoyable and a high point for the Bogart-Bacall collaboration to have ended on – the irony being most of the highlights come not from those two, but from Edward G Robinson (not that Bogart would have minded – the two actors were friends). Claire Trevor and Lionel Barrymore (who plays Bacall’s father) are strong supporting characters. It’s a simpler story, one focusing on mood and setting, and manages to do a good job of developing it. It’s not The Big Sleep, but I’d comfortably rate it above To Have and Have Not and Dark Passage (although all four films are available together in one box set – so there’s not even a need to choose between them), and certainly a must-watch for anyone who enjoys Robinson and psychotic gangsters…
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