“At the southernmost point of the United States are the Florida Keys; a string of small islands held together by a concrete causeway…largest of these coral islands is Key Largo.” So begins the tropically-themed crime odyssey that is John Huston’s formidable and final teaming of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall from 1948. Only a year earlier the one-time lovers, now marrieds had misfired with Dark Passage – a movie that, for all intent and purposes, kept the couple separated, avoiding all but a handful of glimpses of Bogart’s iconic visage; idiotically concealed via the gimmick of a ‘first person’ POV. Nothing so daring on this outing, an uncharacteristic oddity for the pair who had sent cash registers peeling madly around the world; first, in To Have and To Have Not (1944), then, again, in The Big Sleep (1946). Key Largo is a fine film – even an exemplary one, but for atypical reasons; void of the acidic repartee between Bogie and Bacall (her insolence pitted against his playful cynicism). This had made their aforementioned earlier films so memorable. Not much in the way of the ole Bogie/Bacall chemistry herein. He plays noble. She does virtuous. At its crux, Key Largo is a minor resurrection of the iconic Warner crime thriller popularized in a spate of pre-code gangster-land flicks made throughout the early to mid-1930s. Indeed, Key Largo marks the first time in as many years Edward G. Robinson donned the persona of an oily and diminutive mafia thug; a stereotype he practically single-handedly invented and trademarked in 1931’s Little Caesar; now, even more ominous and threatening herein as killer on the lam, Johnny Rocco.
Key Largo is a superb melodrama set during a hellish hurricane; the maelstrom outside, nothing compared to the hysterics about to be unleashed within four rooms of the Largo Hotel, managed by wheelchair-bound, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his contrite daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall). The pair are united in their grief over the loss of Temple’s son/Nora’s husband, George; a casualty of the war, and, desperately looking forward to an impromptu visit by his superior officer, Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart). Set in the off-season summer months, the hotel is empty, save a mysterious and reclusive guest occupying several upstairs suites; his entourage of even more spurious friends lurking about downstairs; Edward ‘Toots’ Bass (Harry Lewis), Richard ‘Curly’ Goff (Tomas Gomez), and, stoic Ralph (William Haade). Arriving unannounced via bus, after learning of a daring prison break by John (Rod Redwing) and Tom Osceola (Jay Silverheels), a pair of indigenous young bucks in fancy shirts, pursued by the local law enforcement, Sheriff Ben Wade (Monte Blue) and his second in command, Deputy Clyde Sawyer (John Rodney), Frank is introduced to these ‘friends’ of Johnny Rocco in the hotel bar; about as inhospitable as one might expect.
Frank also meets one-time sultry chanteuse cum sad-eyed lush, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor, in an utterly heartrending/Oscar-winning role as Rocco’s emotionally distraught gun moll). Gaye can pick a winner on the track with only her women’s intuition and a betting sheet, but she has deplorable radar for attracting the wrong kind of man. Trevor reportedly kept after Huston about the scene where she was required to warble a decidedly offbeat rendition of the song, ‘Moanin’ Low’ while presumably suffering from withdrawal and the shakes for another drink; her requests for rehearsal repeatedly fluffed off by Huston, who would only say there was ‘plenty of time’. As Trevor later recalled, after lunch one day she was promptly informed by Huston they would be shooting this scene next without any rehearsal. Although furious, Trevor girded her temper and performed the song with a pathetic defenselessness and psychological insecurity. Prophetically, costar Harry Lewis predicted Trevor would likely win the Oscar for this moment alone; perhaps, an apocryphal story.
Adapted by Richard Brooks and John Huston from Maxwell Anderson's overwrought 1939 play, which played a solid 105 performances on Broadway, Key Largo is very much an ensemble piece dedicated to the time-honored precepts and virtues of the ‘ole dark house’ suspense drama. Thematically, Brooks and Huston made considerable revisions to the play, contemporizing the baddies – from Mexican banditos to gangland thugs for the movie. Anderson had written the dialogue in free verse – a sort of Shakespearean preamble not unlike the highly stylized ruminations of Damon Runyon. By contrast, the characters in Huston and Brooks’ revision speak in a simple argumentative lingo, more a holdover from the studio’s gangster flicks than anything else, but with a touch of burnt-out class. Lost in translation is Anderson’s fatalistic verve, also, the verbal diarrhea of moralistic hypothesizing, consolidated in a few scenes and elevated by Huston’s superior handling of both the situations and the vernacular, pitting two titans of the screen (Bogart and Robinson) – the former, a hard-bitten ex-idealist, the other an old-time mafia hood, ruled by cruelty and brute arrogance.
Brooks and Huston also heavily rewrote Bogart’s character, an ignoble deserter from the Spanish Civil War in the play who gets his comeuppance in the end, reworked for the film to fit the conventions of Bogart’s then leading man status; the undisputed hero of this piece and tough with or without a gun; defeating the bad guys and returning to the Temples a better man. Key Largo is immeasurably blessed to have John Huston at the helm; arguably, a man’s man who understood this sort of material far better than any of his contemporaries. And in Bogart, Huston has the epitome of the solitary loner on the cusp of a reprieve. There is a redemptive quality to Bogart’s performance, partly apologetic for not being the war hero everyone expects, and thoroughly tantalizing as he matures into the guy an idealistic young girl like Nora could admire; a real romantic elixir for the widow Temple.
Before long we are treated to a tour de force performance by Edward G. Robinson as maniacal mob boss, Johnny Rocco, so visually described by Huston, reclining in a ball and claw bathtub, submerged from the gut down, with a portable fan blowing cool air to sooth his brow, cigar firmly chomped between his thick lips, as a ‘crustacean with its shell off’ and something of a refined cliché of the Mafioso persona Robinson had cultivated for Little Caesar; perpetually grimaced and periodically threatening to put the lights out for anyone who double-crosses him. Rocco proves his mettle with cold steel, threatening to murder Frank and cold-bloodedly assassinating Deputy Sawyer after he dares to escape; the body weighted down and dumped by Ralph and Curly into the turbulent sea. Huston derives a lot of his high-stakes drama from Robinson’s ability to play Rocco with terrifying uncertainty; veering from heartless and prophesizing kingpin living in exile to imploding rat on the verge of a psychotic breakdown; God’s natural wrath ratcheted up with Biblical ramifications, the storm possibly set to destroy all who dwell inside the Largo Hotel, and thus deprive the world of a Johnny Rocco, a dramatic highpoint that Huston unabashedly plays with limited wind and rain effects; the terror written across Robinson’s beady-eyed and jowly visage.
At the time of Key Largo’s shoot, made in a staggeringly brief 72 days, there was some consternation arising from Bogart’s previous movies being embraced by The Daily Worker – a blatantly communist publication. Bogart could not have cared less how or who was reviewing his work, but Bacall remained marginally concerned the sting of such devotion from the left would cling to his reputation, enough to open and FBI file on the man himself. As for Bogart, he was more involved and pleased with the recent critical reviews he was getting for his other collaborative effort with Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948); a picture Jack Warner had initially not wanted to make. Key Largo is decidedly a pared down affair for Huston and Bogart; shot entirely on soundstages, the establishing shots of the hurricane excised from another picture entirely, the Ronald Reagan programmer, Night unto Night (withheld from general release until late 1949). Warner publicity played up the fact that by the time Key Largo went before the cameras the billing status between Bogart and Robinson had reversed with Bogart now the bigger box office draw; the question of ‘billing’ hinting at a competitive antagonism brewing between these two. It was rumored Robinson took minor umbrage to second billing; recollections in his autobiography differing and more conciliatory. “Why not second billing? At fifty-three, I was lucky to get any billing at all!”
Key Largo’s middle act is a superb clash of wills between Bogart’s defeatist and Robinson’s boorish gangland goon begun when Rocco tosses Frank a presumably loaded revolver, encouraging him to take his best shot. It ends in Rocco’s favor – at least, for the time being – Frank, casting the pistol aside and wisely reasoning, “One Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for.” Nora is openly ashamed. Indeed, it goes against the grain of virtually every character Bogart had played until then, the scene capped off by James Temple’s pitiful struggle to climb out of his wheelchair and assault the gloating kingpin himself with his fists. Stricken with debilitating arthritis at the height of his career, Lionel Barrymore’s latter film roles are a fascinating reflection of the actor’s life imitated in his art. Temple is a caustic man, knocked down a peg or two by the loss of his son; also, brought to heel by ailing health, and yet, equally as unafraid to face down the likes of Johnny Rocco who might just as easily pump a bullet into his belly regardless of his infirmity.
As the storm outside intensifies, so does the drama unfolding inside the Largo Hotel. Sheriff Wade returns to make his inquiries as to what has become of his second in command. Earlier, Deputy Sawyer informed him of a hunch the Osceola brothers might return to Mr. Temple, whom the indigenous native peoples hold in very high regard. Alas, Rocco has refused to allow the Indians refuge inside the hotel. Terrified, they have been left to huddle together on the veranda, pelted by the wind and the rain. Told by Curly Sawyer never returned to the hotel, Wade suspects something is afoot – his suspicions confirmed when, in attempting to return to his automobile, the headlamps cast a dim pall across a body lying face down in the surf. Of course, it is Sawyer; dredged up from the bottom of the sea. Rocco suggests the Osceola brothers are responsible for Sawyer’s death, directing Wade to the boathouse near the docks where John and Tom, along with the rest of the tribe, have taken refuge. Without delay, Wade confronts the men. In their haste, they flee and are shot dead by Wade.
Meanwhile, the skipper (Alberto Morin) of Rocco’s getaway boat to Cuba, for fear of being dashed to pieces, has disobeyed his direct orders to remain dangerously close to the shore. With no other means of escape, Rocco orders Frank to navigate the Santana, the only other watercraft moored nearby, before Wade can return to investigate the scene of the crime. In the meantime, Rocco’s contact, Ziggy (Marc Lawrence) arrives with a trio of ‘investors’ eager to buy up Rocco’s counterfeit money. The deal done; Rocco and his motley crew board the Santana, Frank disregarding Gaye and Nora’s advice to make a break for it and instead putting out to sea at once. In the middle of the ocean, Frank systematically takes out Rocco’s boys; wounded in the exchange of gunfire, but otherwise alive and able to steer the Santana back into port. Rocco barters with Frank to charter him to Cuba. But Frank bides his time, observing from the roof as Rocco emerges from below deck with yet another pistol drawn to finish the job. Instead, Frank dispatches with Rocco in short order, using his radio to contact the harbor patrol and alert them to his whereabouts. Back at the hotel Nora learns the news, throwing open the shutters to reveal sunlight already begun to filter through the clouds. Their odyssey is at an end. Frank is coming back to them, and likely to remain a fixture in their lives for a very long time.
The ending to Key Largo is a tad perfunctory and more than mildly anticipated. This is, after all - and apart from its’ many other attributes - a Bogart picture, made under the auspices of a studio-system with all pistons firing, if generally determined to see the star come out alright. On this score, Key Largo does not disappoint. However, after all the escalation of tension Huston has carefully crafted throughout, the hasty dispensing of Rocco and his cohorts feels ever so slightly rehearsed to ensure the inevitable. Worse, the finale leaves one of the principles – Gaye – dangling in uncertainty. This one-time wild child sexpot, long after her looks and talent have faded, has since found the virtue in virtue itself, and been instrumental in seeing Frank through several of his more volatile clashes with her ex-paramour. She is, in fact, much more the gal any man might hope to have as his champion, perhaps even more so than the nobly sweet and innocent, Nora. Indeed, Bogart’s careworn ex-military seems a better fit for Gaye Dawn than the Sweet Polly Purebred of these sundrenched pampas and palms. One intriguingly ponders what Bacall might have made of the role of Gaye Dawn given the opportunity and half the chance. Certainly, her debut opposite Bogart in To Have and Have Not did more than suggest she could play déclassé dames with more guts than heart; the scales only moderately tipped in Bacall’s favor before the final fade out in both that movie and The Big Sleep. But then, we would have been deprived of Claire Trevor’s magnificent turn as this browbeaten casualty, stripped pathetically raw and bare after slumming it with the wrong guy; so abused and demoralized she can no longer find comfort in anything except a good bottle of scotch.
Stylishly photographed in B&W by Karl Freund, and given a superb underscore by Max Steiner, Key Largo looks every bit the A-list feature without actually sporting one of the studio’s A-list budgets. At the outset Jack Warner told producer, Jerry Wald he was slashing Key Largo’s budget to just a little over half the initially promised outlay to ensure the studio did not have another costly fiasco like Dark Passage. Undaunted, Huston worked his miracles without Warner’s benefit of confidence; rewarded when Key Largo returned a sizable gross of $8,125,000 domestically – making it an even more commercially successful picture than the more highly acclaimed, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Leo K. Kuter’s art direction is partly responsible for the picture’s success; constructing a convincing façade, docks, ocean view vista and hotel interiors entirely inside several cavernous soundstages on the studio backlot. The artifice works to this day; the sins of make-believe expertly camouflaged in magnificent monochromatic textures of shadow and light. Huston’s staging of the hurricane with little more than howling wind and thunder effects, a few pulsating lights to suggest bolts of lightning, and well-placed showerheads to rain down buckets of water from the ceiling, creates a genuine and parallel unease to the spiral of suspense taking place on the other side of these rain-soaked walls.
Viewed in its proper context, it’s the performances that outshine the special effects; Bogart, at the top of his game – and fame – and Bacall, emoting with uncharacteristic incorruptibility that does not always suit her characterization, though nevertheless manages to be genuine to the lady herself. Edward G. Robinson is perfect casting par excellence: ditto for Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor. In hindsight, it remains a pity John Huston and Bogart had only two more opportunities to work together after Key Largo; neither with Bacall, although she did accompany her husband to Africa during the shooting of The African Queen (1951). No, Key Largo marks the end of the line for this short-lived, if memorable, alliance between Bogie and Bacall; their indelible impression left behind, particularly from this movie, serving as the inspiration for Bertie Higgins’ like-minded pop tune from 1982.
Key Largo on Blu-ray never attains the level of perfection of The Big Sleep. Part of the issue may be related to surviving elements. The biggest disappointment herein is contrast. This 1080p transfer lacks the deep level of saturation with velvety blacks. Instead, everything settles into a mid-grade tonality, the grey scale pleasing in its own right, but generally lacking the overall punchy quality one has come to expect from Warner Archive’s more meticulous mastering efforts. How much of this is indigenous to the source? Hmmm. Even the old DVD of Key Largo had deeper black levels. Were they boosted? Hmmm, again. Apart from this, the new Blu-ray bests the old DVD in virtually every way. A high bit rate ensures fine detail is stunningly realized and tonality, while seeming slightly anemic, is not egregiously distracting, if distracting at all. Once acclimatized to the overall flatness of the image, it is actually quite possible to admire its attributes, while mildly setting aside its shortcomings. The audio is mono as originally recorded and sounds quite aggressive in spots; the thunder clasps during the hurricane delivering some unexpected sonic resonance. Apart from a badly worn theatrical trailer, Key Largo comes with no extras. Bottom line: while not as outstanding in hi-def, the Warner Archive release of Key Largo gives more than an adequate representation. It tops the DVD to be sure, and for most, that will surely be enough. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)