Though I’ll always have a love for Casablanca, I think on balance my favourite Humphrey Bogart film is Key Largo, the 1948 film directed by John Huston, in which he co-stars with Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson.
The film is set in the Florida Keys, the chain of low-lying coral islands dependent upon Florida’s southernmost tip. It’s based on a Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson, and the film is mostly stage-bound, claustrophobic and all the more effective for it. Screenplay writers Huston and Richard Brooks took the central situation of the play, updated it by a decade, re-sited it in the Keys and provided the film with a happy ending. And in doing so created a classic.
Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a man who, since serving in theWar, has become a drifter, fending for himself, tending only to himself. Frank was a war hero, the type who did and never boasted, and a man who has turned cynical at what the world has failed to become after such deaths. He’s passing through Key Largo to visit the father and widow of one of his men, George Temple, to give them details of George’s service, and his death, the kind of things that official letters don’t tell. This was an aspect of War that has never been sufficiently emphasised, the way that returning soldiers brought news to families who suffered losses.
George’s father, James (Lionel Barrymore), owns the Largo Hotel. A cripple who cannot walk unaided, he runs the Hotel with the assistance of his daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall), a beautiful, calm woman whose own life has gone into a deep freeze since George’s death, and who, we later learn, knows more about Frank (and already is intrigued by him) because George had written of him, his Major: enough so to know that the story in which Frank depicts George as a hero is an untruth told to make Mr Temple feel proud, because George had already told it to her, with Frank as the real hero.
It’s a sentimental but touching scene, underplayed by all three, filled with the resonance of how many real scenes like this it’s audiences had played themselves. But this is a framework for the actual story, for Frank has walked into a situation whose tension is established instantly: people hanging round the Hotel, doing nothing, insisting the Hotel is closed and there’s nothing here for him. Five of them, including an aging glamour girl who’s now a lush, Gaye Dawn, real name Maggie Mooney, played by Oscar-winning Claire Trevor.
Everybody’s hanging around for the mysterious Mr Brown, who keeps to his room. Nobody’s quite square: the dapper Toots (Harry Lewis) is a tough guy and a giggler, Curly comes over all friendly, Gaye’s on edge. Worse still, there’s a Hurricane warning. The Seminoles are heading for Key Largo, where Mr Temple usually takes them in to shelter. So too are the Osceola brothers (one of whom is played by Jay Siilverheels, the future Tono in The Lone Ranger TV series), who look up to Mr Temple: they got busted for fighting, broke out of jail, but are here to give themselves up.
But there is a cancer in the midst of this set-up and it is Brown, whos real name is Johnny Rocco, an ex-Mob boss deported to Cuba, who’s on his way back, confident of regaining his former King-like position. Edward G. Robinson made a career out of playing villians and he is in his element here, slicked-back hair, a fat jaw with voluptuous lips, chewing on a cigar, oh yes, it’s a cliched appearance but it’s also an elemental one. Every atom of Robinson rates power, anger, arrogance and basic cruelty. Johnny Rocco can do what he wants, and he does it because he can and because he wants to. There are no restraints upon Johnny Rocco, though he doesn’t step outside what was acceptable to an audience in 1948, but he is nevertheless a monster, and a more effective one for only allowing the surface to play.
At one point, Johnny propositions Nora, whispering in her ear, softly enough that we cannot hear what he says, but Bacall conveys what we need to know by her reactions, her initial stone-facedness finally breaking into an attempt to scratch Johnny’s eyes out.
In fact, Bacall doesn’t have a grat deal of dialogue in this film, relying on her expressions and body-language to tell her story.
The story involves a double-imprisonment: Frank and the Temples are held by Johnny and his men’s guns, but everyone is held by the Hurricane, battering the Hotel. Johnny’s opposite number, Ziggy, is supposed to be meeting him here to collect the consignment (high-quality forged notes) but the Hurricane suspends time, leaving Johnny to fill it with needless cruelty, not the least of which is forcing Gaye to sing her theme song unaccompanied: Trevor, who had assumed she would lip-sync, was required to sing herself, without rehearsal, unexpectedly, exactly mirroring the story and her performance is astounding, as she realises the words she is singing relate directly to her and her voice goes off-key, falters and breaks.
But this scene is more than another illustration of the monstrosity of Johhny Rocco, it is fundamental to the story, which is the story of Frank McCloud. Frank’s come out of the War disillusioned. His old job, circulation manager of a newspaper, no longer fits. He deludes himself that he’s happy-go-lucky, looking for a job that involves boats, but what he’s really looking for is a future that holds meaning. The only thing about Johnny Rocco that matters to Frank is getting out alive and moving on. Johnny means nothing to him, it’s not up to him to fight Rocco. What’s one Rocco, more or less, in a world made for gangsters?
But Gaye is the moment Frank crosses over, or rather yet he crosses back. Like Rick in Casablanca, remembering who he really is, Frank finds that all his cynicism, all his intellectual urge to preserve himself, to not take risks for anyone but himself amounts to nothing, not even a hill of beans, against what he is inside, what he has always been. Frank will pilot the boat that will take Johnny and Co. back to Cuba. He will go with a gun, Johnny’s gun, snatched by Gaye in revenge when Johnny abandons her.
At the end, the film abandons its claustrophobic interiors, and sadly it loses focus, heading into an ending taking place on a small motor-cruiser, in a sea-mist whose light fails to match the noir tightness. Frank kills three of Rocco’s men and Rocco the fourth for refusing to get himself killed. He schemes and bargains and plans to cheat, all to get the ‘Soldier’ to let him go, and in the end he rages that Frank isn’t big enough to do this to him, not to Johnny Rocco, and that hubris gets him killed by a silent Frank, who has waited patiently to do what has to be done, and who executes Rocco. All that is left is the inevitability of the call to the Largo Hotel, where the fatal debris is being cleared up, the brushwood of disaster and evil that follows a Johnny Rocco, heedful only of himself, and that is to say, offstage, that Frank is coming back.
Nora takes the call, and once more Bacall puts it into the stillness of her face but the light in her eyes, and then she throws light into the story, opening the shutters to the sun that promises a future that Rocco cannot mar.
That’s the happy ending Huston and Brooks brought to the film. In the play, the villains are Mexican bandidos, Frank a Spanish Civil War veteran, and he is killed at the end. The film opts for optimism: the future Frank re-discovers is allowed to go ahead instead of coming tragically too late, and I like the film for that. Overall, the staging, the lighting, the direction, the script, and above all that the acting are good enough for that age-old but still enthralling story of a man being led back to do right, for the sole reason that it is right. Key Largo is right, and is a mesmeric experience.