Key Largo‘s Contained Noir Pit Legends Against Each Other 75 Years Ago

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Key Largo‘s Contained Noir Pit Legends Against Each Other 75 Years Ago

It was supposed to be a nice trip. At least it starts that way. Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) heads out to sunny Key Largo to meet the father, James (Lionel Barrymore) and widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall), of a friend who served with him and was killed in WW2. Nora and James run a hotel, which is closed—or supposed to be—for the season, and both treat Frank as a member of the family.

But there are guests at the supposedly closed hotel, who soon make their presence aggressively known. After offering Nora and James a sum of money they just couldn’t refuse, notorious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his gang have been holing up at the establishment, hiding from the cops. Yet there’s a hurricane bearing down on the archipelago, and when the fuzz comes sniffing around the joint on the hunt for a different pair of perps, Rocco’s goons get nervous. Guns are drawn, and Frank, Nora and James find themselves in a hostage situation while a deadly storm rages outside. 

John Huston’s film was adapted from a play (Paul Muni originated the Bogart role), and he does not try to hide it. Much of the action takes place within just a couple of rooms in the hotel, but when those rooms contain Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor, and Lionel Barrymore, the limited plane of action hardly matters. Key Largo is an actor’s piece, through and through. 

Although every member of the impressive cast gets their time to shine, the main thrust of the action is the conflict between a peacocking Robinson and an introspective Bogart. Frank and Johnny are both men trying to figure out what their lives are now that their glory days—the former in the war, the latter as a notorious Prohibition-era gangster—are over. While they’re in the same existential predicament, they deal with it in opposite ways. Johnny is all bellicosity and bluster, shot through with a streak of sadism, sure that if he carries on grandstanding as if he is still the Capone-esque figure he once was, then no-one will notice his diminished power. Frank, on the other hand, keeps all his insecurity inside, watching and assessing the players in this strange situation in which he’s found himself, choosing carefully when to step in and when to let Johnny talk himself into trouble. Bogart and Robinson had co-starred in four films before Key Largo, and often competed for the same parts during the 1930s and early ‘40s. Their almost fraternal rapport makes the jousting between Johnny and Frank feel extra personal; they know just where to stick their knives to make it hurt the most. 

Johnny gives Frank a gun with which to kill him early in the action—the catch is, he must also die in the process. A heroic sacrifice. Frank refuses, and his refusal is couched as a disgrace; the ghost of Frank’s dead war hero friend looming. Although no-one in their right mind could really blame him (and as it turns out, the gun Johnny offers him is empty anyway), his shirking of an opportunity for heroism still sits uneasily, and the gangster mocks him relentlessly. 

Frank’s “redemption” comes in an act of simple—yet, brave—human decency. Johnny, who gets off on committing these acts of humiliation, persuades his alcoholic ex-songstress moll Gaye (Claire Trevor) to sing an old torch song by promising her a drink afterwards. She sings; he doesn’t deliver. Frank, despite the daunting volume of bad guys with guns who are watching him, strides behind the hotel bar, pours a drink, and gives it to her. Johnny immediately slaps him three times across the face in quick succession, but it doesn’t matter. Frank has remembered what it feels like to be courageous.

Key Largo was the last of four movies that Bogart and Bacall made together, and by some measure the one in which they share the fewest scenes—unlike in the earlier three, their romance is still just incipient by the time the credits roll. And yet, from their matching outfits, to the ease with which she helps him tie up his boat before the hurricane hits, there’s a quiet simplicity to their partnership that is lovely to watch. They’re so deeply a duo, they don’t need to shout about it. The portrayal of their relationship here is miles away from their outrageously sexy “Anybody got a match?” repartee in To Have and Have Not, released just four years earlier, but it’s no less bewitching for its serenity. 

Though she’s billed below her, Claire Trevor actually has a far more active role in Key Largo than the putative leading lady. A former singer sucked into Johnny’s noxious orbit and then driven to drink, Gaye starts the movie beholden to the gangster, before slowly waking up to his monstrousness. While she’s positioned as a rather pathetic character, a drunk and a has-been, the perceptive Frank immediately sees the decency in her. And Trevor, always simultaneously operating on several emotional planes, refuses to let Gaye be pigeonholed. Far smarter than initially meets the eye, her act of self-aware bravery enables Bogart to save the day.

It speaks not to the quality of the production, but to the immensity of its stars, that Key Largo wouldn’t be counted as a career highlight for most of the cast (with the exception of Trevor, who won an Oscar for her scene-stealing role), or for the director. It is an unabashedly talky production, somewhat old-fashioned even compared to much of the stars’ contemporaneous work; think the 40 minutes of previous Bogie and Bacall collaboration, Dark Passage (1947), that are shot from Bogart’s point of view, or the notoriously wild location shoot of the next Bogart and Huston project, The African Queen (1951). Compared to features like those, it’s easy to see how a movie composed mainly of people talking in two rooms of a Hollywood backlot would be overshadowed.

But while the film might feel decidedly ordinary from a cinematic perspective, between the sparring of Robinson and Bogart, the tenderness of Bogart and Bacall, and the emotional complexity of Trevor, as well as the other performances that we’ve not even covered here—Lionel Barrymore’s pugilistic patriarch, the characterful array of Robinson’s goons—it offers a veritable embarrassment of riches. Seventy-five years after its original release, Key Largo proves that there’s a timelessness to great acting, a visceral thrill to watching legends go toe-to-toe that doesn’t dull with age.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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