In tribute to the late Lauren Bacall, we’re looking at the four classic films she made with husband and screen partner Humphrey Bogart between 1944 and 1948: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Dark Passage, and Key Largo. Last week we looked at Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage. Today we’ll look at John Huston’s Key Largo.
I want to state this up front because I know that many people will disagree: Key Largo is not one of Humphrey Bogart’s best films.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s really, really good. Since I’ve seen it, oh, 20 times or so, it must be doing something right. Still, when you consider that his credits include Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and In a Lonely Place, you realize that Bogart simply made so many masterpieces that even a film like Key Largo has to get bumped down to the second tier. There it joins films like The Enforcer and Dark Passage. And that ain’t bad company.
Key Largo is famous because it reteams Bogart with collaborators from different phases of his career: Edward G. Robinson, with whom he worked in the Warner Brothers gangster cycle in the thirties; John Huston, the writer/director most responsible for moving him out of the gangster roles in the early forties; and Lauren Bacall, his soul mate onscreen and off, who had only recently become his wife.
Of course, even with that line-up of talent, things could have gone poorly. It’s worth remembering, for instance, that Bogart, Huston and Mary Astor followed the triumph of The Maltese Falcon with the immediately forgettable Across the Pacific. Great films are, to a large degree, the result of hard work and good luck.
The good luck charm on Key Largo might well have been producer Jerry Wald (Mildred Pierce, Caged) who first brought a play by Maxwell Anderson to the attention of John Huston. Huston reportedly found the play so hard to adapt that he barred Wald from the set, but the producer recognized a good set-up when he saw one and knew immediately that it would make a good pairing for Huston and Bogart and Bacall.
The story begins in the Florida Keys as an ex-serviceman, Frank McCloud (Bogart), arrives at a hotel just ahead of a hurricane. He’s there to visit the widow and father-in-law of an old army buddy, but he finds them being held hostage by a group of gangsters led by the infamous Johnny Rocco (Robinson). This is might seem like an invitation to bravery, but Frank declares himself out of the hero business. “One Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for,” he insists. But as the storm lays siege to the hotel—and as his buddy’s widow (played by Bacall) stares at him insistently—Frank is pushed closer and closer to a confrontation with Rocco and with his own surrendered sense of duty.
In many ways, this set-up was the premise of most Bogart features of the forties (Casablanca and To Have and Have Not are only the most famous examples, but there are many inferior examples, such as Tokyo Joe or Sirocco). The formula boiled down thusly: a disillusioned Bogart recovers his illusions.
In a sense, the eventuality of Bogart’s return to heroism is one of the faults of Key Largo. In the original play, the character was a deserter from the Spanish-American war. Since a Bogart hero could never do such a thing, however (and since nothing as unheroic as desertion could be presented as admirable in a Hollywood film), Frank McCloud becomes a man rather vaguely disenchanted after the war. Seeing as we later learn he was a hero in battle it’s not clear exactly why he first refuses to confront Rocco. With the political subtext removed from the story, with no hint that Frank was actually a coward during the war, the central character’s inner conflict becomes obscure. We’re more or less required to fill in the blanks using the Bogart formula from past pictures.
What holds the film together is style, in particular, the style of the performances. Edward G. Robinson gets the showboat role, chomping a cigar, waving a gat around, delivering testimonials to his own greatness. For my money, it’s his best performance as a gangster. Surrounding him is a who’s who of great character actors: the divine Clare Trevor as his girlfriend, an ex-singer with a serious booze problem; Thomas Gomez as his rotund chief lieutenant; Dan Seymour as an even more rotund henchman (this has to be the fattest crew on record, at least until The Sopranos). Even good old Marc Lawrence makes an appearance as a rival gangster.
Of course, the whole point of the film is to reunite Bogart and Bacall. They were, simply, perfect onscreen together. If Key Largo lacks the sexual charge of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, it is because behind the scenes on those movies the actors were having a passionate affair that seemed destined to ruin them both. By the time this film was made, they had married and were soon to begin having children. If their paring here lacks the witty back and forth of their Hawks films, and the erotic tension of their early pairings, it has been replaced by tenderness and affection. It’s a kinder, gentler Bogart and Bacall. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.