Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon: Key Largo (Huston, 1948)

1940s Blogathon Mrs MinverThis entry is part of The Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the 1940s blogathon

The title of John Huston’s Key Largo perhaps suggests a rousing adventure on the southern island, yet in reality the film presents itself more as an intimate character study than anything else. In stars Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall, Huston has strong faces that he uses to his full advantage. Adapted from a Broadway play of the same name, the action stays mostly limited to interiors, giving the film a very theatrical feel. Except for the references to the hurricane weather that traps the characters inside, it isn’t until the final gun battle out at sea that the film makes full use of its location. In some ways, this story could’ve taken place anywhere.

But the film does open in Key Largo, one of the islands off the southern coast of Florida. As a bus comes down the highway connecting the island to Miami, we meet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), a former Major in the Army. He heads to the Hotel Largo looking for the proprietor, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore). Upon his arrival, he’s greeted by a small group of shady characters, but otherwise the hotel seems empty. After meeting Temple and his daughter, Nora (Lauren Bacall), McCloud learns that hotel is closed for the season, but the group of guests offered a sum they couldn’t refuse in order to stay for their fishing trip. McCloud served with Temple’s son, George, in Italy, and is welcomed to stay by Temple and Nora, George’s widow. On the horizon, a major hurricane is brewing.

Key LargoAt the same time, two Seminole brothers, the Osceolas, escaped from jail and are being sought out by the local sheriff and his deputy, Sawyer. Temple is close to some of the local Seminoles, inviting them into the hotel during the hurricanes. The police know he is friendly with the Osceolas, and make a stop by the hotel to see if they’ve been there. Temple hasn’t seen them, but says if they do come by he will use his influence to convince the brothers to turn themselves in. Shortly after, the Seminole group rows into the docks at the hotel looking for shelter, and Temple and the Osceolas brothers decide that since they were in for minor crimes, it’s probably best to just turn themselves in after the storm.

Within the fishing vacation group are Curly (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), Toots (Harry Lewis), Ralph (William Haade), and Gaye Dawn (Clare Trevor). It is apparent that Gaye has a drinking problem, and the rest seem tight-lipped about their stay in Key Largo. There is a sixth member of their group, but it is mentioned that he doesn’t leave his room.

As the storm rolls in, the men in the group pull guns on Temple, Nora and Frank. It’s revealed that their sixth man is gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), who had been exiled from the US for eight years. Rocco had been living in Cuba, and is up in the Keys to make a deal with an American contact. Rocco is a bitter man, believing he will rise back to prominence. He also holds Gaye’s dependence on alcohol over her head.

Robinson, Bogart, Barrymore and Bacall. What a cast!

Robinson, Bogart, Barrymore and Bacall. What a cast!

The gang reveals that they have the deputy, Sawyer, who was caught looking around the hotel trying to find the Osceola brothers. Frank is given the chance to shot Rocco in a gun duel but refuses. Sawyer takes the gun and tries to escape but the firearm is unloaded and Rocco kills him. The action shows Frank’s seeming cowardice to do the right thing in favor of non-violence and self-preservation.

As the storm reaches a head, the Seminoles who usually find shelter with Temple inside the hotel knock to get in, and are locked out by Rocco’s gang. Two members of the gang are sent out to sea to dump Sawyer’s body into the ocean. The whole time Rocco’s gang is holding the Temples and Frank hostage, Gaye is begging for a drink, which Rocco refuses her. He finally relents, saying that if she sings a song, he’ll allow her a drink. Clearly not wanting to, Gaye reminisces about the glamor of her career as a nightclub singer, which is in contrast to her sorry state now. She gives a raw performance of “Moanin’ Low,” and then is a refused the promised alcohol by Rocco. Frank can’t stand to see her treated this way, and grabs her the drink. Nora notices that he does have the capacity for heroism, something she suspected right after she met him.

After the storm passes, the sheriff comes by the hotel looking for Sawyer, having gotten a phone call from him earlier. Rocco meets him and tell him that Sawyer wasn’t there. As the sheriff pulls out of the driveway, he notices Sawyer’s body, which was washed back on shore during the storm. He then sees the group of Seminoles heading back to their boats, including the Osceola brothers. Believing that Sawyer knew the brothers were at the hotel and that he was murdered by them, the sheriff kills both men.

Rocco notices that his yacht captain pulled away during the storm even through he was warned not to, thus leaving the gang stranded. After completing the deal with his contact, Rocco enlists Frank to take him back to Cuba on the hotel’s small boat. Gaye manages to get Rocco’s gun off of him and gives it to Frank, telling him his best chance is to run under cover of darkness when they head out to the boat. To both the Temple’s and Gaye’s surprise, Frank gets on the boat with the gang and doesn’t try to run.

While out at sea, Frank cleverly plans and takes out Rocco’s crew one by one. He then sets back towards the hotel. Back at the hotel, the sheriff learns of the whole situation with Rocco and laments killing the Osceola brothers. The film ends with Nora’s joy at hearing that Frank is returning. TrevorRobinson

As mentioned at the beginning, Key Largo is an interesting movie because of its intimacy. Huston chooses to film his characters in close-ups, letting their faces tell the story. Many times there are shots where it’s just one group making eyes at the other, which helps to build the suspense. It’s a film that could’ve very well have been just a filmed stage performance because it doesn’t require the expansive environment of other stories, but Huston’s framing choices elevate it to a level that could only be achieved in film. Of course those faces are strong ones in their own right, and Bogie, Robinson and Bacall are all wonderful in their roles. I thought Robinson, older and bigger than in his younger days, really fit into this role. It was like he was the gangster of his younger days but now his stature on film and his physicality had elevated him to that larger-than-life gangster that I had always imagined. Claire Trevor actually won the Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of Gaye, and she stands out just as much as the heavyweights all around her.

BogartBacallThis was Bogart and Bacall’s last film together, and while they don’t get to share in the same steamy romantic scenes as in previous films, they’re still so much fun to watch on screen together. It’s kind of cheesy, but even when he touches her hair or they share a look it’s magical. On another fun note, the boat that Frank takes the gang out on is named the Santana, just like Bogie’s real yacht.

Overall, I enjoyed this film. I really knew nothing about it, so I guess I was expecting a more action-packed noir, but I really liked the chance to just hang out with these characters. I do think the way this film is put together is really amazing as well, so it was a pleasure to watch.

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32 Responses to Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon: Key Largo (Huston, 1948)

  1. Backlots says:

    Great post! I haven’t seen this one in a while, I think it’s time for another viewing!

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I do this thing where I buy box sets because I want to own one or two of the films, and the others kind of end up in a backlog of movies for future watching. Key Largo was one of those, so I’m glad I finally got a chance to sit down and watch it!

  3. R. D. Finch says:

    A nice post on a really good film. I particularly like way you showed how Huston turned a movie that might have been very stagy into something cinematic, turning the limited setting into an advantage in terms of establishing mood, atmosphere, and tension between the two sets of characters, something that’s typical of Huston’s many adaptations of novels and plays. This film really shows the advantages of an all-star cast as well. Even though it was a return of sorts to the characters Edward G. Robinson played in the 30s and tried to get away from, he really sank his teeth into the role, and I don’t think he ever exceeded the menace of his Johnny Rocco, before or after. If you think of the film having been made in the immediate aftermath of WW II, the return of the criminal anarchy that Rocco represents–he’s very authoritarian and fascistic in his criminality, a power-seeking minor dictator–the films takes on even more meaning.

    • That’s a really good point on the Rocco character. It was really interesting to me to see Edward G. Robinson in this film because I actually just saw Little Caesar for the first time a few weeks ago, so he had come full circle. Thanks for reading!

  4. John Greco says:

    Good post! Bogart and Bacall had great chemistry. While I prefer THE BIG SLEEP and TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT to this film there is much to recommend here especially Edward G. Robinson in a return to a tough guy role.

    • Thanks for the comment! Yes, I definitely like The Big Sleep and To Have and Have Not a lot more than this film. I still have to watch Dark Passage, but any of the Bogart/Bacall films are worth seeing just for them :)

  5. Page says:

    Lindsay,,
    The only thing Key Largo needed was Hemingway hunkered down in the hotel lobby, giving sage advice to the troubled souls and roustabouts as they passed by. : )

    As others have mentioned, this is such a good film. For some reason I’ve always felt it was made much earlier than 1948. A testament to how Hollywood continued to churn out top tier films, sparing no expense when it came to scripts or talent then locations and cinematography.

    You’ve done a very nice review of the film. A wonderful contribution to the Blogathon.
    Page

    • Thanks Page! You’re right, I could totally see this film being made earlier, in fact I was kind of surprised when I went back to look up the date. Hemingway would’ve totally fit!

  6. No one could play a gangster as well as the versatile Edward G. Robinson. “Key Largo” is always a great watch. Glad you took the opportunity to see it and share your thoughts.

  7. FlickChick says:

    EG & Claire Trevor make this film for me. And that wind really drives me nuts (but in a good way). Great post and a great choice.

  8. This is one of my all-time faves. Everyone is really on top of their game here, especially Robinson who portrays the older version of his younger self (as you’ve pointed out).

    I like your observation: “Huston’s framing choices elevate it to a level that could only be achieved in film.” So true!

    • Thanks for reading! I’ve been doing a lot of work in school about what makes a film “cinematic” or not, so it was neat to see that displayed in this movie. You make a great point about the cast being on top of their game. It was a treat to watch!

  9. The Lady Eve says:

    This is one of those films I’ll usually watch when it pops up on TCM. Have seen it a dozen times, at least, but it continues to draw me back. Am particularly fond of Claire Trevor’s performance these days and Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco still scares me. Next time I watch “Key Largo,” it will be with some of your observations in mind.

  10. A great film, which grew in stature for me (literally and figuratively) when I saw it on the big screen. I went to Key Largo myself largely because of this movie. Love the cast and setting, and the intimacy of a “location” shoot on a soundstage. Nice post.

  11. Kevin Deany says:

    A nice post on a superb gangster film. I like the setting of Key Largo, and how the hotel is surrounded by water, and there’s a hurricane coming, and there’s now way out, and there’s gangsters holding everyone hostage. A lot of dynamics at work here, so it makes for compelling viewing.

    Still, it took me two times to appreciate this movie. Not that I didn’t like it the first time, but I was decidedly uncomfortable for that first viewing. The Film Center at the Art Institute in Chicago was showing “Key Largo” on a Saturday afternoon. I was by far the youngest person there, and the vast majority of the audience was senior citizens. There was an upcoming Russ Meyer festival and they ran several coming attractions for Russ Meyer movies before “Key Largo.” I was horrified and embarrassed to watching these with this audience. It was funny and horrifying at the same time. My fellow audience members were appalled, and I really have to wonder who thought it would be a good idea to screen these at a matinee screening of “Key Largo.” The next time I saw it was under much more pleasant circumstances.

    • Wow, I can see how that could be awkward! I’m looking forward to future viewing of Key Largo, especially since I was expecting a more action packed, flashy noir before I watched it. I’m sure the nuance of it comes out more on repeat viewings. Thanks for reading!

  12. KimWilson says:

    Many believe this was Robinson’s finest performance. Huston’s claustrophobic shots really capture the mood of the story. Nice post.

    • I’m embarrassed to say that I actually haven’t seen many of his films! I’m slowing making my way through his early gangster movies, but everything I’ve seen him in he’s wonderful. Thanks for the comment!

  13. I agree with other comments that this was Robinson’s best performance, and Huston brought out the best in others as well. It’s a taut, well-made film and you are right that it is a very intimate one. Great selection!

    • Thanks for reading! Johnny Rocco is definitely a great, intimidating character and Robinson is great in this film. I think Huston did a great job and there isn’t any excess in this film. It’s just so well put together.

  14. Judy says:

    Great point about the intimacy of this film as the characters spend so much time waiting. Claire Trevor and Robinson are both excellent and the film certainly builds up the tension to breaking point.

  15. Aubyn Eli says:

    Claire Trevor is my favorite part of this film, but it’s definitely got a lot to recommend it. I’m a big Robinson fan and he gives one of his most menacing performances here. And I don’t know of an actor who could put as much cool, seething contempt into the line “a world where there’s no place for Johnny Rocco” as Bogart.

  16. Vienna says:

    Thank you for very good review of a film I have seen several times. I love how Huston created such a great atmosphere, so claustrophobic, the storm is so real.
    As a fan of Claire Trevor I’m so glad she won an Oscar if only for that one iconic scene where she is forced to sing by the brutal Rocco.
    Edward G. has the starry role and does it so well, but Bogie is memorable too with a quiet yet powerful performance.

    My blog. Vienna’s Classic Hollywood

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