Maj. Frank McCloud Ret. (Humphrey Bogart) passing through Key Largo on his way to Key West. He stops off to meet up with a war buddy’s family that runs a hotel there, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his daughter-in-law Nora (Lauren Bacall) (widow to the dead war buddy). Frank sees that the hotel has been rented out by a group of five mouth-breathers. Turns out that it’s a gang of mobsters led by the exiled Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), in town to do some kind of deal that will bring Rocco back to prominence. But there’s a hurricane coming.
Based (a bit loosely) on a play by Maxwell Anderson and directed by John Huston (who also co-wrote with Richard Brooks), Key Largo (1948) isn’t exactly what you might expect from a movie with that description. This isn’t film noir. I’d compare it to The Godfather: Part II (1974) as it’s about the people in the mafia while paying its dues to the mafia as story element (dirty deals and the like). It’s an adapted play with the kind of characterization and small plot moves that are typical of that medium. But it doesn’t sound or look like a play, which are the two main drawbacks to easy play-viewing. According to the special features, the play was written in free verse, whatever that means, so I imagine there was significant re-writing done. It was done quite well, if it still can’t throw off some of the unwieldy, deep human traits.
Bogart isn’t the self-assured gumshoe, but rather a scarred war veteran with mixed views on heroism. It isn’t against type, I think, to a modern viewer. Since we’re unlikely to have seen any of his pre-1941 movies, we don’t associate him with the many gangster roles he had. Most likely, you’ll see or have seen Casablanca (1942), Sabrina (1954), and The Maltese Falcon (1941). He’s also so physically slight that I tend to see him as naturally more sensitive and thoughtful than a larger presence like Edward Robinson (also a familiar movie gangster). Adopting this view makes for a better movie experience of his movies.
Robinson is the real attraction in this movie if you can look past Bogart and Bacall. Bacall’s part is slight—which is true of two other movies I’ve seen with her, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946)—but her part in Hollywood lore attracts the eyes. Robinson, though, is relatively unknown outside of serious film nerds and I expected something a bit trite. I was happy to find that he played the role thoughtfully and carried the movie with Bogart.
The ending is surprisingly tepid. Everybody looks like their performances are at gunpoint. “Smile, I said smile!” Up until then, the story was mostly well paced and performed. The hostage situation was tense and interesting. The subplots are decently plotted, if a bit too detached and filmed from far away. Then, for some reason, everything and everyone goes slack for about two minutes. The fix strikes me as obvious. In fact, the eventual ending seems to go out of its way to limp to finish. It isn’t enough to ruin the experience because my expectations on dynamism are low for pre-1970 movies. Still, it does break into my interest.
Worth checking out at the library or buying to fill out your classic movies collection–$20 with three other Bogart/Bacall films.