KEY LARGO (1948) is a great example of a catchy plot and a bunch of fine actors lifting up a film that is decent but not scintillating. Humphrey Bogart comes to Key West to visit a dead war buddy's father and widow and gets tangled up with a hotel full of mobsters led by Edward G. Robinson as a hurricane bears down on the Florida Keys and the hotel.
I first became interested in KEY LARGO (directed by the great John Huston) during college. What sparked my interest at the time wasn't Huston's film (which I knew nothing about) but a story I read in the Hollywood trade papers that up and coming Finnish uber director Rennie Harlin (CLIFFHANGER, DIE HARD II) was planning on directing a film about gangsters caught in a hurricane which echoed the plot of KEY LARGO. It was never made (maybe a good sign as Harlin's career has faded as much as that script idea). The combination of gangsters and hurricane intrigued me so I caught KEY LARGO one night on television. I was disappointed by it. Yes, it stars Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Lauren Bacall but the hurricane element was barely noticeable. Having grown up in the Spielberg/Lucas era of big effects, I was expecting gangsters trying to shoot one another as houses and cars flew around and tidal waves crashed through the hotel. But it was mostly talking and very little action.
Watching it now, that would make sense as KEY LARGO is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson adapted by Richard Brooks and John Huston (although apparently the movie resembles little of the play). But director Huston does play up the hurricane elements more than I recalled with wind sound effects, footage of huge waves crashing onto the shore, and a climactic palm tree that crashes through the lobby window to end the second act of the film. The hurricane is just a metaphor for the turbulent, swirling drama going on inside the hotel as innocent people are terrorized by dirty crooks. The main focus of the film are the actors and the dialogue and not the storm.
Humphrey Bogart stars as disillusioned WWII veteran Frank McCloud, on a bus to Key Largo to visit wheelchair bound James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), the father and widow of Frank's war buddy George, who was killed in action at San Pietro in Italy. Mr. Temple runs the Largo Hotel. When Frank arrives, he discovers the hotel is temporarily closed, rented out for a month by a group of shady characters supposedly from Wisconsin on a fishing trip. As a hurricane looms in the distance, Frank helps Nora tie up their boat and board up the windows before the storm hits.
The leader of these unsavory guests is Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), an Al Capone like mob kingpin who was deported by the Feds from the U.S. and fled to Cuba. Rocco has snook back into the United States but is hiding out at the hotel with his crew Curly (Thomas Gomez), Toots (Harry Lewis), Angel (Dan Seymour), and Rocco's old flame, the alcoholic, ex nightclub singer Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor). We first meet Rocco sitting naked in a bathtub, smoking a cigar, a small fan blowing air to keep him cool from the Florida humidity. Everyone is cool and collect until one of the local sheriff's men Deputy Clyde Sawyer (John Rodney), while looking for a couple of escaped Seminole Indian convicts, recognizes Rocco. Rocco's men jump Sawyer and have him locked up in one of the hotel's rooms.
The hurricane hits landfall and the tensions inside the hotel ratchet up as Frank and Rocco begin to psychologically slug it out. Frank trying to protect the Temple's from Rocco's murderous impulses. Rocco terrorizing his hostages, trying to prove he's back in charge. Rocco doesn't like the storm and wants to leave for Miami where he's trying to sell a shipment of counterfeit cash to the Miami syndicate. Sawyer grabs a gun but it's empty and Rocco kills him. Rocco's men take Sawyer's body out in the turbulent bay and toss him into the water.
Rocco and his men discover the boat that brought them to Key Largo has left. Sheriff Ben Wade (Monte Blue) shows up looking for deputy Sawyer. He discovers Sawyer's body washed back in by the hurricane. Rocco lies, telling the Sheriff it was the Seminole Indian brothers who killed Sawyer. The Miami syndicate led by their leader Ziggy (Marc Lawrence) arrive and pick up Rocco's shipment. Rocco forces Frank to take him and his men back to Cuba. Gaye slips Frank a gun. Frank gets the gangsters away from the hotel, headed for Cuba when he decides to battle it out with Rocco and his men on the high seas.
The hurricane as a metaphor for the psychological storm brewing inside the Largo Hotel is constant throughout KEY LARGO. Rocco is a one man hurricane, mowing down human psyches and even taking lives. Rocco antagonizes the invalid Mr. Temple, inciting Mr. Temple to get out of his wheelchair to fight Rocco, with disastrous results. Rocco tortures Gaye Dawn mentally, keeping liquor from her, forcing her to sing a song when she can no longer carry a tune. Rocco flirts with Nora, calling her a "wildcat", making Gaye jealous. Rocco kills Sawyer and sets in motion a lie that will cause Sheriff Wade to kill the two Seminole Indian brothers for a crime they didn't commit.
But the eye of the hurricane, the calm before the Rocco tempest is Frank McCloud. He arrives at the hotel with emotional baggage, his best friend killed in the war, his faith in the freedom he fought for shaken. Frank has seen plenty of death and when Rocco challenges Frank to shoot him (with an empty gun that Rocco gives him), Frank backs down. Rocco calls Frank a coward and the film implies that Frank may have been a coward in Italy while his best friend George was the hero, winning medals. But later, Nora hints that Frank is in denial, that it was Frank and not her husband who fought off the Italians, who showed bravery in the face of insurmountable odds. George had told her about the real Frank McCloud.
Frank McCloud is a prototype Bogart character, very similar to his Rick Blaine in CASABLANCA who states, "I stick my neck out for no one." Frank echoes similar words in KEY LARGO when he says, "I fight nobody's battles but my own." But Frank will battle with his lone wolf persona. He tries to stay out of Rocco's affairs. But a spark has come back into Frank's life when he sets eyes on Nora. He doesn't want to see Nora or her father hurt. They've already lost a husband/son. Frank will get his confidence back when he observes Rocco becoming unglued during the storm, pacing like a caged tiger, unable to control things as Mother Nature takes over. "Show it your gun," Frank tells Rocco. "If it doesn't stop, shoot it."
Although Bogart is the star of KEY LARGO, it's really an ensemble film with everyone getting their turn to shine. At times, Edward G. Robinson seems like the main character as he takes over the middle section of the film, Bogart staying in the background. It's fun to see Bogart and Robinson squaring off against one another. In the early 30's, Robinson was the top dog playing gangsters and tough guys in films like LITTLE CAESAR (1931). Bogart would later take the mantle from Robinson as his career would start to flourish beginning with his role as a bank robber in THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1935). Bogart and Robinson even worked together previously in the boxing melodrama KID GALAHAD (1937).
Edward G. Robinson is truly menacing as Johnny Rocco, sadistic, violent, a sociopath. Rocco is a one man cyclone, causing destruction and misery in his brief stay at the Largo Hotel. But Robinson could play any role and as vicious as he is as Rocco in KEY LARGO, he could also play timid and meek in Fritz Lang's SCARLETT STREET (1945) or a moral, dogged insurance investigator in Billy Wilder's DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944). Bogart is his usual steady, cool self as Frank McCloud but I wouldn't say it's one of his flashier performances. But he gets to act with his wife Lauren Bacall. KEY LARGO would be their fourth and last film together (1942's TO HAVE AN HAVE NOT and 1944's THE BIG SLEEP two of their earlier pairings). Bacall as Nora doesn't have to be sexy in KEY LARGO but she's fantastic at conveying what's going on in her head with just a stare or glance from her perfect face. Director Huston does an amazing job of cutting to reaction shots by Bogart, Bacall, and Claire Trevor as Gaye that give so much information about what they're thinking or noticing as events unfold.
If you recognize actor Lionel Barrymore's voice as James Temple, it's because Barrymore's most famous role was as the mean Mr. Henry Potter in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). But Temple is a good character although he suffers plenty of misery in KEY LARGO. Lionel Barrymore, along with his siblings John and Ethel, are considered Hollywood royalty (actress Drew Barrymore is related to them). Surprisingly, out of all the great actors in KEY LARGO, only actress Claire Trevor would win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as the over the hill, alcoholic moll Gaye Dawn. Director Huston rounds out Rocco's gang with some colorful characters. Thomas Gomez as the gum chewing heavy Curly Hoff and Harry Lewis as the giggling enforcer Toots Bass stand out with Curly my favorite.
All of director John Huston's films are adapted either from novels or plays with Huston writing or co-writing many of the screenplays. His superb career includes classics like THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (1948), THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951), and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975) all based on classic books. Huston and Bogart would work together on six films. I never realized it but co-writer Richard Brooks would become a protégé of Huston's, turning to writing and directing his own movies, many of them also based on novels and plays. Some of Brooks more well known films adapted from plays or novels include CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958), ELMER GANTRY (1960), and IN COLD BLOOD (1967).
As great as the acting and dialogue is in KEY LARGO, there's something about the film that holds it back from being better. The film's climactic shoot out on the boat is staged poorly and doesn't have the dramatic effect expected. I would have liked to have seen Bogart and Robinson battle it out mano a mano at the end but their final confrontation is less than compelling. A few more scenes outdoors during the ferocious storm with the key players might have been interesting. And the subplot with the two escaped Seminole Indian brothers, who trust Mr. Temple and get killed because of Rocco's deception to Sheriff Wade, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
But my petty criticisms should not be enough to dissuade movie fans from viewing KEY LARGO. Any film with Bogart, Robinson, Bacall, and Barrymore is worth catching. They just don't make movies anymore where women are called "dames", gangsters are called "wise guys", and tough guys threaten to give someone a "sock in the kisser."