Key Largo is one of those movies that, if it were any better, might not be as good as it is or as interesting. It’s a movie that benefits from its black and white photography. If the film were shot in color, it would be too stark and too honest, and the whole thing would collapse like a house of cards.
John Houston’s Key Largo is a strange movie. Maybe it’s not that strange, but it has a strangeness to it that keeps the film feeling like we’re caught between a memory and a dream. Characters seem to wander from one set-piece to another, not because of narrative reasons but because of fate. A scene starts, but I’ll be damned if you can tell how it’s going to go.
Part of the strangeness comes from the script by Richard Brooks and Houston, who adapted Max Anderson’s play of the same name. Though Brooks claims Houston did little to help with the script other than drinking and gambling, but what Brooks took from the play is primarily the third act. That accounts for why everything seems as if we’re missing parts of a larger story. But under Houston’s direction and Brook’s structuring, it enhances the film and does not weaken it.
Key Largo pretends to be about Bogart’s character Major Frank McCloud. The movie even opens with Bogart on a bus, the only white man, aside from the driver, amongst indigenous Seminoles and Latinos. The bus gets pulled over, and the cops warn about two escaped Seminole prisoners. The bus driver tells Bogart the Seminoles will show up soon; they always come back home. Bogart stares mournfully into the camera. “Home being Key Largo.”
Bogart doesn’t ask; he states it, albeit unsure. Bogart, Houston, and Brooks tell us precious little about Frank. All we know is that he fought in the war and knew George Temple, a fellow soldier who died in battle. He’s visiting the Keys for fishing and because the Temples invited him to stay at their hotel, the Key Largo.
Nora (Lauren Bacall) is the grief-stricken widow, and James (Lionel Barrymore), George’s disabled father and proprietor of the Key Largo. They want to know about how James died and his heroism. They need Frank to provide closure.
But upon arriving at the hotel, Frank is greeted by Curly (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), Toots (Harry Lewis), and Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor). At first, Frank asks for Mr. Temple, and all he’s told is that Temple is gone and the hotel is closed. This seems to be confirmed as the place appears to have no other guests. Though the men constantly refer to someone upstairs, who seems to be running things.
Eventually, Frank finds James outside by the docks. They invite Frank to stay the night. The other guests do not seem thrilled. A hurricane is coming, and the last thing they need is this stranger in the mix. His presence makes the other overly friendly, the kind of friendliness that makes you uneasy.
Key Largo is a movie where characters have a way of talking that both expose their psyche while also playing coy. For example, when Nora asks Frank what he hopes to do now that war is over, he tells her anything involving the sea. “Life on land has become too complicated for my taste.”
The characters of Key Largo never feel as if they exist solely for the movie. Instead, it feels as if we are glimpsing them only in a moment in their lives-for some, it will be their final moments. Who these people are and what their backstories remain a mystery. Brooks’s script often gives us peeks into their past, and characters get lost in their nostalgic memories.
If anyone suffers, it’s Bacall, but that’s mainly because Brooks’s script doesn’t have anything for her to do. She overcomes this, though, and turns in a performance of a woman saddened by her husband’s death and angry at the men who have invaded her home. Moreover, Bacall and Bogart’s chemistry is so dense they convey in a single look what most scripts can never say in a monologue.
Finally, we meet the man upstairs, Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) — a one-time gangster kingpin who was deported and is now trying to buy his way back into the states. Though we see the story mainly through Frank’s eyes, the story and the movie belong to Robinson’s Rocco and his colossal ego. As played by Robinson, Rocco is a terrific heel, the type of bad guy who refers to himself in the third person while chomping on his cigar.
Key Largo isn’t about any one thing, which makes it so compelling. It’s about so many things, and while it never truly nails any of them down, the fact that it has more than one thought in its head is refreshing for any time. Some of its metaphors may not land home or be too on the nose, but I don’t care.
Most of Key Largo takes place inside the hotel Key Largo. The hotel isn’t that big to begin with, but with nine people, it’s downright overflowing. A lesser director would have gotten lost among all the bodies. True, there are scenes where people are standing around watching, but the way they are staged makes the scene compelling.
It could be argued that Key Largo has too many characters. Brooks could have easily combined two or three of Rocco’s henchmen into one. But doing that misunderstands why the men are there. They aren’t there because Houston wants them, or even Brooks. They’re there because Rocco needs them. He’s a big man, and big men have large entourages.
One of my favorite characters is Curly, played by the beguiling Spanish-American character, actor Thomas Gomez. Gomez has a scene in Force of Evil, an Abraham Polonsky movie that came out that year, which lives in my memory even years after I’ve seen it. His Curly is almost like Rocco’s narrator, his spin doctor. Gomez’s voice perpetually sounds like every word is uttered with a mournful smirk.
Houston is helped vastly by legendary Cinematographer, inventor of the unchained camera, Karl Freund. Freund shot Metropolis, The Last Laugh, The Mummy, Dracula, and shot every episode of “I Love Lucy.” A giant in the art, his camera work is crucial to why Key Largo is so absorbing.
Freund films much of Key Largo in deep focus. Essentially meaning that everything in the frame is in focus, allowing us in the audience to decide where to look. But with so many characters with so many incredible cinematic faces, the movie all but demands rewatches.
Together Freund and Houston frame Key Largo in such a way we don’t even notice that the characters seem to be moving from one set to the next aimlessly, nor do we care. They are much too fascinating to listen to, and Freund’s camerawork is too gorgeous to look away from. Houston takes advantage of this and allows every actor a scene or two to stand out.
Bogart is, per usual, stellar. Frank is a man who has slight PTSD but is more hurt by the failures of his own country. A coward, a cynic, a true believer, Frank is a man lost at sea.
But the picture belongs to Robinson through and through. He dominates every scene as he stalks about, roaring about how he used to be the biggest thing in the states. He terrorizes the women and enjoys it. When he’s not whispering things to Bacall’s Nora, what he whispers we never hear, he’s humiliating his partner Trevor’s Gaye. His men hang on his every word and treat him as almost infallible.
Rocco is a stand-in for the uniquely American brand of fascism. Blustery and cruel, he demands loyalty and can not understand why no one would love him after all he’s done for them. In one instance, Rocco hands Frank a gun and dares him to shoot. He doesn’t. Someone else grabs the gun, and Rocco kills them. Unfortunately, the gun Rocco gave Frank wasn’t loaded.
James and Nora understand and realize Frank knew. But Frank didn’t know, and he tells them that. The world is crawling with Roccos, and Frank can’t see how one less Rocco does the world any good.
Claire Trevor won an Academy Award, and it’s easy to see why. Of all the characters, hers is the most pitiful. A woman destroyed not just by alcohol but by the mental and implied physical abuse by Rocco. She is a broken woman who haunts Rocco’s orbit only because she can’t see a life beyond it.
The hurricane hits, the Seminoles bang on the Temple’s front door begging to be let in, and our characters are trapped in the hotel Key Largo with nothing but their troubled souls and each other. Houston and Freund darken the sets during the storm, illuminating Rocco and the others in blackness. Veiled and mysterious, the way Freund casts shadows over the group is chilling and tense.
The shootout at the end on a boat as Frank tries to deliver Rocco back to Cuba is satisfying while not climatic. Yes, it’s a foregone conclusion because of the Hays code. All bad guys must end. But there’s something in the way Houston and Brooks shoot it, perhaps how Robinson seems so desperate to make a deal.
He’s almost pitiful. Frank, on the other hand, is calm and silent. He doesn’t say anything; he lets Rocco ramble on as he aims his pistol.
Key Largo is a movie that somehow seems timeless even though steeped in 1948 and the issues of the time. The characters seem adrift, unsure what to do, as they deal with a power-hungry bully unable to realize his time has come and gone. All the while keenly aware of a natural disaster heading right towards them, and there’s little they can do.
The more things change, huh?
Images courtesy of Warner Bros.
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