Sunday, February 7, 2010

#73: Key Largo (John Huston, 1948)

Released: July 16, 1948

Director: John Huston; Screenplay: Richard Brooks and John Huston based on a play by Maxwell Anderson; Cinematography: Karl Freund; Music: Max Steiner; Producer: Jerry Wald; Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Frank McCloud), Edward G. Robinson (Johnny Rocco), Lauren Bacall (Nora Temple), Lionel Barrymore (James Temple), Claire Trevor (Gaye Dawn), Thomas Gomez (Richard “Curly” Hoff), Harry Lewis (Edward “Toots” Bass), John Rodney (Deputy Clyde Sawyer), Marc Lawrence (Ziggy), Dan Seymour (Angel Garcia), Monte Blue (Sheriff Ben Wade), William Haade (Ralph Feeney), Jay Silverheels (John Osceola), Rodd Redwing (Tom Osceola)

- "One Rocco, more or less, isn't worth dying for..."

Another case of a movie that is probably more properly labeled a gangster movie, but here I am going to flat out admit to being swayed by conventional wisdom that just naturally places Key Largo as a film noir. It’s a debatable point, but I don’t feel like expending the energy of debating whether or not to include it. My definition of film noir is large anyway, so this one ultimately has no problem in qualifying for this countdown. The resort atmosphere of the Florida Keys is certainly atypical for a noir, but the hurricane gives the shadowy lighting and darkness to lend it a noirish atmosphere. Plus, when it comes right down to it, it’s just too much of an enjoyable film for me to pass up the opportunity to write about it.

I’ve always been fascinated by how the stage play origins of the film are glaringly obvious, which is usually a negative. In the story, returning veteran Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits the Key Largo resort owned by the family of a dead war buddy. There he meets the man's father (Lionel Barrymore) and widow Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall). While Frank is visiting, the resort is taken over by a group of gangsters led by the notorious Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his entourage which includes a number of minions and girlfriend Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor. Due to the hurricane moving into Key Largo, he is forced to set up camp in the hotel. While Rocco holds Frank and the Temple family hostage, Frank slowly moves from not wanting to be involved in the situation to growing protective of Nora and James. The closed confines of the resort are vital to the success of the story. The claustrophobic feel seriously heightens the tension. It is an interesting dynamic that is created, with the deterioration of relations between the fugitive gangsters and resort owners mirroring the worsening of the weather outside. So while it quickly becomes obvious that with the exception of the outdoors scenery, we are essentially watching a play on film, it’s so well done that it never matters.


The key reason it doesn’t matter is because of the astounding level of talent involved. The great John Huston not only directs, he also co-wrote the adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play. While certainly not his best, it is still impressive work from Huston, as he had quite the stars to coordinate during production. In Edward G. Robinson, Huston was working with the most iconic of on-screen gangsters in his final gangster role. It would mark the first time that Robinson would work with Humphrey Bogart and not receive top-billing. The reason is obvious, as this is prime-era Bogart. In the previous six years he had a run of films as impressive as any actor in the history of cinema, among them: Casablanca, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and the same year’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I’m not arguing that Key Largo is as good as any of those, but it’s impressive movie to keep his red hot 1940s run intact. This would also be the final film that he and wife Lauren Bacall would make together. The performances are as expected from both of them, but Houston was wise not to focus things entirely on the wildly popular duo. Robinson and Claire Trevor provide outstanding performances of their own, serving as a counterpoint to the harmony of Bogey and Bacall. Lionel Barrymore is also smooth in his role as the wheelchair-bound proprietor.


The tension builds to a well executed, if un-noirish conclusion. Even so, I quite like the realization that is made by McCloud at the finish. While far from the best of anyone involved, Key Largo remains a delightful film to watch and I definitely intended to find a place for it in the countdown.

10 comments:

  1. Dave, I certainly support this choice! Although I haven't seen it in ages, it's always been up there for me in terms of Huston films. Great tension, I think, and as you mention, a very successful adaptation of a stageplay into a screenplay.

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    1. Some plays that were turned into movies, ie. Wait After Dark, have really grated on my nerves. Not Key Largo. The film offers several fine performances - Harry Lewis scores a personal best as Toots - and a cat and mouse game between Bogart and Robinson. Can Bogart outwit Robinson? Robinson respects Bogart's McCloud, but how far will he be pushed to do more than just slap his adversary?

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  2. Dave, Bogart being a veteran may be enough, given the era, to cinch Key Largo's noir status. The return-of-the-gangster motif turns up in other noirs, though never so ominously as here, with Huston's conception of Rocco as a vampire-like monster. It certainly succeeds as a suspense film and no excuses are necessary for putting it on the list. Putting it ahead of High Sierra is a little more debatable.

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  3. I love this film! Most of all I like the Bogart-Bacall duo, the incomparable Edward G. Robinson, a bunch of familiar character actors (Claire Trevor, Thomas Gomez, Dan Seymour, Marc Lawrence), and the weather factor -- it really looked like the weather was against these gangsters! And I like the showdown on the boat, which apparently was given to John Huston by Howard Hawks who intended but never used it in his "To Have and Have Not."

    I don't know if you're going to include "The Dark Passage" (another Bogart-Bacall venture) in this countdown but if you do, I'm surprised you should score it higher than "Key Largo." That movie creeps me out, and I watched it only once or twice, I think.

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  4. For some the returning war vet theme gives the movie a film noir quality – even though the action takes place in a non-noir locale and there is no cross-over between the good guys and the bad guys. I feel the picture is essentially a good-triumphs-over-evil tale laced with a swan-song for the gangster flick and leavened with post-war existentialist angst.

    Bogart’s vet, Frank McLoud, shares the angst of post-war Europe, where many returning to the peace with expectations of a better world that would justify the suffering and destruction, are confronted with the reality that nothing has changed. Disillusioned and bitter, the moral absolutism that underpinned their sacrifice dissolves into a weary relativism where one less Johnny Rocco is not worth dying for.

    The climax and resolution of the story complete with a non-noir ending, also give little support to the view that Key Largo is a film noir. As the final scene hits the screen, it is the strength of family and the selfless pursuit of established values that destroy evil, with the existential anti-hero morphing into a hero of the classic mold. As McLoud says: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”

    Claire Trevor deservedly won a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her role.

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  5. Like Thieves Highway I consider Key Largo a borderline noir. Quirky Character mentions Dark Passage which I actually watched for the first time this afternoon. I also wonder if it will make your list since I found it to be much better than its reputation.......M.Roca

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  6. Jeffrey - Yes, a very enjoyable film and one that fits nicely alongside Huston's other work. It's not his best, but it's still an enjoyable film.

    Samuel - I easily could have flip-flopped this one and High Sierra... very close and depending on the day there placements could have fluctuated a little bit. I agree that I don't think it's a real stretch to place this one as noir, but as Tony points out it does lack some of the elements that many consider to be essential to noir. Still, I think the label fits.

    Quirky Character and M.Roca - What fun would it be if I came out and said if Dark Passage is included? You'll have to wait and see...

    Tony - Outstanding response as usual! This is a truly wonderful paragraph: "Bogart’s vet, Frank McLoud, shares the angst of post-war Europe, where many returning to the peace with expectations of a better world that would justify the suffering and destruction, are confronted with the reality that nothing has changed. Disillusioned and bitter, the moral absolutism that underpinned their sacrifice dissolves into a weary relativism where one less Johnny Rocco is not worth dying for."

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  7. Good Answer Dave......M.Roca

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  8. Of course, weather plays a major role in this film, which as you rightly note is a blend of various elements. I like the film, but I wouldn't quite say it's a great film, though the performances certainly are. The films you bring up here that it followed were greater, but in it's own right this is exceedingly entertaining, and Huston gets much of the credit, as does Max Steiner, the great composer.

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  9. Hi Dave, enjoying your countdown although I have been mainly silent. I tend to think of this more as a gangster film than as a noir, but think it is excellent either way - especially Bogart and Bacall. I think there are interesting similarities with a much earlier Bogart film, 'The Petrified Forest', also based on a stage play, where he plays the gangster - in both of them, as you say in your review here, the stagey, static quality actually becomes a plus because it serves to build the sense of claustrophobia. I also like your point about the weather outside counterpointing the deterioration of relations between the people inside.

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