Key Largo (1948)


(director/writer: John Huston; screenwriter: Richard Brooks/from the play by Maxwell Anderson; cinematographer: Karl W. Freund; editor: Rudi Fehr; music: Max Steiner; cast: Humphrey Bogart (Frank McCloud), Lauren Bacall (Nora Temple), Edward G. Robinson (Johnny Rocco), Lionel Barrymore (James Temple), Claire Trevor (Gaye Dawn), Thomas Gomez (Curley Hoff), Dan Seymour (Angel Garcia), William Haade (Ralph Feeney), Harry Lewis (Toots), Marc Lawrence (Ziggy), Monte Blue (Sheriff Ben Wade), Jay Silverheels (John Osceola), Rodd Redwing (Tom Osceola), John Rodney (Deputy Clyde Sawyer); Runtime: 101; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jerry Wald; Warner Brothers; 1948)

“Exciting crime thriller set in the Florida Keys during a late summer hurricane.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bogie’s old pal John Huston directs the final of the four times Bogie and Bacall played together in this exciting crime thriller set in the Florida Keys during a late summer hurricane. Edward G. Robinson starred in his last major gangster portrayal. Key Largo was adapted to the screen by Richard Brooks and Huston, and is a reworking from Maxwell Anderson’s unsuccessful 1939 Broadway play that starred Paul Muni. The reworking of Muni’s role for Bogie, helped make the film a success.

Edward G. Robinson plays a once big-time gangster named Johnny Rocco, during Prohibition, who was deported from the States 8 years ago and returns from Cuba to Key Largo to cut a deal with Miami mobster Ziggy over counterfeit money. Rocco and his moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) and gang of four, Curley Hoff (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), Ralph Feeney (William Haade), and Toots (Harry Lewis), commandeer the wheel-chair bound cripple James Temple’s (Lionel Barrymore) seedy hotel, as they wait to cut their deal. Living with Temple is his son’s still idealistically innocent war widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall), who has blocked out how unhappy she is by thinking she’s happy. A cynical and disillusioned Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), who was her husband George’s commanding officer and good buddy during the WW11 Italian campaign, where he died in battle, visits for the first time to tell both personally about George’s last days and fills them in on how he contemplates a new career of running a fishing boat after knocking around with odd jobs the last few years.

Tension mounts in the claustrophobic hotel setting as two local Indian brothers, Tom and John Osceola, escaped from jail for minor crimes and are hunted by the police. Also a severe hurricane is on the way that leaves Rocco stranded, as his skipper skips out on him with his cruiser. During the heated conversations, Frank is disturbed by the callous way Rocco treats his has-been nightclub singer lush mistress and finds enough courage to help her even though threatened with death and beatings. Frank’s also sickened that bad eggs like Rocco are still around after he fought in the war to cleanse the world of such scum.

When the storm subsides Sheriff Ben Wade searches the hotel for Deputy Sheriff Sawyer and finds him dead outside the hotel. Rocco tells the lawman the escaped Indians murdered the deputy, and the sheriff blindly believes the white man and goes off in a rage and fatally shoots the fleeing Indians without asking any questions.

After Rocco completes the deal with Ziggy he forces Frank to pilot them on a small fishing boat to Cuba, only not taking a disappointed Gaye along. The low-key Frank regains his will to fight after seeing that it’s up to people like him to put a stop to the evil Rocco types of this world. He regains his military fighting skills and shows courage as he overtakes the entire gang before they reach Cuba.

Robinson has a grand entrance scene, the film’s most memorable, where he’s introduced as a big-shot gangster chomping on a cigar while taking a bath with the fan going. But his swagger will fade as he slowly realizes he’s no longer the “Somebody” he once was, and he begins to have the shakes by the last reel.

The film plays out as a character study contrasting Bogie’s alienated war veteran searching for a new identity and Robinson’s aging gangster searching for his old identity, more than it does as a predictable tale of good vs. evil. In any case, it puts its finger on the postwar mood of despair for those who can’t cope with a country in transition. For Bogie it means reflecting on what it means returning from the war and finding the world is still a troubling place, while for Robinson it’s puzzling over why he can’t be on the top anymore–blaming it on the mobs fighting with each other instead of working together, which ended Prohibition and his source of illegal income.

The acting is superb from this first-class cast (though Claire Trevor won an Oscar for Supporting Actress, her uninteresting performance was actually the film’s most superficial), the action scenes are tight, the tension is maintained throughout building to the thrilling climax, and the dramatic struggle for human dignity by both the war veteran and the gangster are taken as serious as a heart attack even though it was almost laughable hokum. The result is a fine film that is full of life, despite all the characters being stereotypes.