Humphrey BogartJohn HustonLionel BarrymoreEdward G. Robinson
Key Largo
Medium: film
Year: 1948
Director: John Huston
Writer: Maxwell Anderson, Richard Brooks, John Huston
Keywords: Oscar-winning, film noir, gangster
Country: USA
Actor: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, Thomas Gomez, Harry Lewis, John Rodney, Marc Lawrence, Dan Seymour, Monte Blue, William Haade
Format: 100 minutes
Website category: Oscars
Review date: 23 July 2010
It's the fourth Bogart-Bacall film, but that's not the best way to think about it. Bacall's strictly a supporting player and she doesn't have a romance with Bogart, although there are hints that things might be going that way. No, this is a Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson movie, with the former playing a war veteran and the latter playing the leader of a bunch of gangsters. Bogart visits a hotel in Key Largo to pay his respects to the wife and father of a man who died under his command, only to find that Robinson and his goons have taken over and are throwing their weight around.
To get some background out of the way, incidentally, it's adapted from a stage play. The original was set after the Spanish civil war, with Mexican bandidos going up against a disgraced deserter. Okay, loosely adapted. This is surprising since the playwright, Maxwell Anderson, was highly regarded and already had a huge list of screen credits. However John Huston at the time was up in arms about the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee and thought Anderson was a Roosevelt-hating reactionary. Thus pretty much everything from the play went out of the window, with the ending for instance getting replaced with that of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, which was going spare since it hadn't made it into Howard Hawks's 1944 movie version.
So in other words, forget the stage play. Time to talk about the film.
Firstly, the gangsters are great. Thomas Gomez could have walked straight off the set of The Sopranos, while the others are just as plausible. They feel horribly true to life, for instance reminiscing about the good old days of Prohibition and hoping that one day the government might bring back the golden age of the mobs by making alcohol illegal again. Not all the line readings in this movie are as good as they might have been, but one thing you can't argue with is the conviction with which everyone embodies their role. In fact the whole production is something of a tour de force, with everything from the casting to the lighting and set design really immersing you in this steamy brutal world. That's doubly impressive since we're going to see Key Largo almost torn apart by a hurricane. (In the year when this was released, 1948, the Florida Keys actually saw two major hurricanes less than a month apart.) There's the violence of the humans and the violence of the elements, both of which help to create an oppressive, almost feverish atmosphere. When the hurricane eventually lets rip, it's pretty breathtaking.
Even the Production Code isn't getting in the way, except when Robinson's threatening to torture Bogart. There's no doubt that these guys would be capable of it, but there's equally no doubt that it couldn't have been shown in a 1940s Hollywood film.
The hard men are all solid, with Bogart doing some fine, suppressed work and Robinson swaggering all over the shop, but the biggest single contribution to the film is actually a woman's. No, it's not Bacall. Claire Trevor won the 1948 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her work here as a gangster's moll. She was even based on a real moll, Gay Orlova, the girlfriend of Lucky Luciano, then incorrectly thought to have been executed by a German firing squad. Trevor's a massive presence here. She's a washed-up, twitchy drunkard who used to be a famous singer and doesn't have much control over herself or her need for alcohol. More importantly though, she's the film's canary. You know how miners would take a canary in a cage underground with them? You can tell if things are bad by watching the canary. Well, that's Trevor in this film. Even right at the beginning, she's so flaky and on edge that I wouldn't have been surprising to learn that this was a horror movie with the hotel taken over by cannibals.
Bacall's doing some weird suppressed acting, which it's just about possible was partly a reaction to what Bogart was doing. She's a young war widow and there are a couple of scenes where she's not doing what you'd expect at all. Well, who's to say that's unrealistic? I hope I never have to know how she'd have felt. Her father (in law?) though is Lionel Barrymore, who's giving it everything he's got and contributing a ton of conviction. Look out for the scene where he gets so mad that he climbs out of his wheelchair and tries to attack Robinson, by the way. Lionel Barrymore had been genuinely wheelchair-bound for the last ten years from a hip injury and arthritis, so contemporary movie-goers would have got the shock of their lives on seeing him clamber out like that.
There are a lot of subtleties in Bogart's character. In the original stage play, his character was a disgraced deserter. In this film, he may or may not be a war hero. He sings the praises of his fallen comrade to Bacall and Barrymore, telling a story so respectful as to be practically a hymn to all the soldiers in the war, but we don't know how true it is. Bacall later suggests that it might have been him doing all that stuff instead of the dead guy, yet Bogart's character arc in the film is that of a coward. He's fighting with himself. Maybe he really is as weak as he says he is? Maybe he isn't, but he only thinks that? There's a lot here to explore and both Hawks and Bogart are taking it deep. What was going through Bogart's head in coming here to see Bacall and Barrymore in the first place?
The production is excellent. Everything we see in the hotel is a tour de force, although the dock scenes aren't quite as great. That's really a water tank with a painted sky backdrop. It doesn't actually look fake, but equally it doesn't feel as if they went all the way to Florida.
Overall, it's an impressively well-made film with lots of outstanding performances and one or two dodgy line readings that don't hurt it. It's not my favourite Bogart-Bacall film, but only because their material together isn't going very far. Incidentally a fifth Bogart-Bacall movie had been going to be made some years later, except that Bogart died. As a period gangster movie and film noir, it's solid. We've got brutally convincing gangsters, moral ambiguity with Bogart's character and an uncompromising ending that's not bothering to make its hero pointlessly heroic. It's not going as far as the stage play, mind you. In summary: pretty damn good.