Key Largo: Whipping Up a Storm

A STORM OF FEAR AND FURY IN THE SIZZLING FLORIDA KEYS!

When I visited Key Largo, it was just a place I was passing on my way out to Key West. Naturally, the name of the island only meant one thing to me – this was where Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson battled during an intense hurricane. The people of Key Largo know how to nurse that legacy and for five years the island hosted a Humphrey Bogart film festival, until it grew too big for the island. Hurricanes come and go but this film will always survive.

Meet Frank McCloud (Bogart), a former major and World War II veteran who’s made his way back to America. Now he’s arrived in Key Largo and finds a hotel owned by the Temple family. He has a special errand. George Temple was his closest friend during the war but was killed in Italy. Now Frank wants to meet his family and gets a chance to talk to George’s father James (Lionel Barrymore) and widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall), who are moved by his visit. There aren’t many guests at the hotel, only six, an odd group of men and one woman who claim to be there for a fishing expedition.

As a hurricane approaches, their true nature is revealed – the men take Frank and the Temples hostage. One of the guests, who up until now preferred to stay in his room, turns out to be Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a mob boss who had been exiled to Cuba years before for being an undesirable alien. Now he has an important deal to strike with partners in Miami who are on their way. But the hurricane is a threat to everyone…

Choosing his battles wisely
The film was based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, which was quite different. Set during the Civil War, it had Mexican bandits and the lead character was a deserter. Still, some of the same themes survived and the movie adaptation is the one we remember. Bogart’s character is a veteran who chooses his battles wisely. There’s a scene in the movie where Rocco challenges him by giving him a gun; he wants to provoke him into action. But Frank won’t do it. Out of cowardice or to save himself? The latter choice is the more likely and a typical trait of the kind of anti-hero that Bogart often came to play onscreen. He’s great and has a very nice rapport with Bacall in their last screen collaboration; she’s compelling as the widow who in crisis falls for another soldier.

The film has a dynamite cast. Robinson provides us with its most exciting performance; his gangster comes across as complex – cocky and cruel but also terrified of a storm that he can’t control, that won’t stop if he threatened it with a gun. Claire Trevor won an Oscar as his boozy moll. The scene that probably did it for her is the one where Rocco forces her to sing without accompaniment; director John Huston did pretty much the same thing to Trevor on the set and it was this first raw take that was used in the film. There are many other fine supporting performances; I particularly enjoyed Thomas Gomez as the talkative Curly who couldn’t make anyone believe he’s on a fishing trip if his life depended on it; the same is true of Rocco’s whole gang, but that has never really mattered.

The storm is convincingly staged; stock footage is used for the exterior scenes, but the fear is tangible inside, with fierce winds lashing the hotel. It’s a claustrophobic setting and cinematographer Karl Freund has long shadows dancing everywhere as the tough dialogue bounces back and forth between sweaty actors.

Key Largo is a very intense and exciting film, with a dramatic climax where Frank has one last chance to prove his mettle. Rest assured – he didn’t survive Italy only to see a mobster invade Florida.

Key Largo 1948-U.S. 101 min. B/W. Produced by Jerry Wald. Directed by John Huston. Screenplay: Richard Brooks, John Huston. Play: Maxwell Anderson. Cinematography: Karl Freund. Music: Max Steiner. Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Frank McCloud), Edward G. Robinson (Johnny Rocco), Lauren Bacall (Nora Temple), Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, Thomas Gomez.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actress (Trevor).

Last word: “People always say, ‘Didn’t you have fun making that picture?’ Well, you don’t have fun. It’s not a party. It’s hard work. But ‘Key Largo’ was fun. And I adored John. I was just enchanted by him. […] [Bogart] had great wit, great sophistication, and he was really very sweet. As soft as butter, in fact”. (Trevor, “Claire Trevor: The Life and Films of the Queen of Noir”)

 

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