Describing the Florida Keys always sounds as if a Dashiell Hammett-esque noir voice should be speaking the words aloud: “An isolated strip of land as beautiful as it is hot.” Comprised of several islands the most recognizable is also the title of this John Huston noir, Key Largo. The sixth of eight pairings teaming up director John Huston and star Humphrey Bogart, Key Largo marked the final team-up between husband and wife pair Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. With the “old home week” spirit behind the camera, Key Largo is a muggy, if highly familiar, noir with a deeper message exploring the darkness within our own country.
Frank McCloud (Bogart) is visiting the Keys to see hotelier James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), the father of an old war buddy, and James’ daughter-in-law Nora (Bacall). But Frank soon discovers the Temple’s are being held against their will by the villanious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his gang, holed up until a contact can meet them. A hurricane brews, both inside and outside the hotel, leading to danger for everyone.
Placed alongside the other films Huston and Bogart worked on together, Key Largo retains the unity with the Earth, placing a group of sinners and saviors in a location at the will of Mother Nature, with questions asked about the nature of good and evil, and whether a man can be redeemed. Frank McCloud enjoys the Temple’s company, but the minute Johnny Rocco takes over and asserts his authority, Frank backs off. Rocco, positing Frank the hero, gives him the opportunity to end everyone’s suffering by taking Rocco out. Frank drops the gun instead – not because he questions whether the gun is actually loaded, as we later find out it isn’t – but because he fears for his life. “Better to be a live coward than a dead hero,” Gaye says. His unwillingness to “stick his neck out” leaves the character rubbing elbows with another Bogart pacifist, Casablanca’s (1942) Rick Blaine.
There’s also a little Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe in Frank as he noses around to investigate Rocco and his goons. Almost immediately crime follows Frank as cops search the bus he’s on for two Native Americans wanted for murder. Upon entering the hotel things are immediately off. The brewing storm notwithstanding, various goons answer the hotel telephone and Nora witnesses Rocco’s moll, Gaye (Claire Trevor) being manhandled.
Once Rocco’s true intentions are revealed Key Largo becomes a quasi-retelling of Noah’s Ark, with the various bad apples all stuck, two by two, in the hotel – even the Native Americans, roughly turned away by Rocco’s crew cling to the hotel during the storm. WWII had ended just three years before, but the wounds haven’t quite healed, or Huston is saying that the worst is yet to come. Rocco’s take-over of the hotel has all the weight of a Fascist invasion and, like Hitler, controls communications and makes people disappear.
Huston’s films are actors showcases and the isolated, confined space allows everyone to work as an ensemble. Though I’ve described Bogart already, his Frank McCloud is the right blend of inquisitive observer whose personality is contradictory but lends a conflicting air to Bogart. Bacall is left taking a backseat in this final pairing with her husband as Nora. She isn’t the active participant or femme fatale that she was in To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1945), or even Dark Passage (1947). Nora is the good woman who’s moved on from her dead husband and is willing to adopt Bogie as her next. She cares for James, and though she does try to get some jabs at Rocco, her motivation is limited to reacting.
Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor are Key Largo’s one-two knockouts. Robinson is remarkably slimy and intimidating, able to kill in cold-blood one minute and passionately kiss a fighting Nora the next. He’s right when he describes him and his cruel as utterly spoiled “including our dispositions.” His better half, better being a relative term, is Claire Trevor’s Gaye. Huston gets the best out of his actor’s when they’re being humiliated and Gaye’s a hellion beaten down. Already sloshed by the time we meet her, Trevor evokes the pathetic miserableness of alcoholism, effortlessly inebriated and one drink away from having things turn ugly. Watching her grovel to Johnny for booze is more haunting than any murder Johnny gets away with. Lionel Barrymore as James also has a moment of sadness, trying to literally stand up to Johnny, another inept man like Frank.
Recently presented on Blu from Warner Archive, “home [is] Key Largo” for the characters, whether they like it or not, and you’ll definitely want to visit when you get a chance. You might drop in, it’s getting out that might prove difficult.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.