Directed by John Huston
Based on the play Key Largo by Maxwell Anderson
Screenplay by Richard Brooks, John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor
Frank McCloud (Bogart) is visiting a hotel owned by the family of an old army buddy in Key Largo, Florida. When a major storm rolls in, it doesn’t just bring thunder and lightning. Now Frank and the other guests are trapped in the hotel with group of dangerous thugs.
Key Largo originated as a stage play, written by Maxwell Anderson (What Price Glory), that opened on Broadway in 1939. Director John Huston (The Night of the Iguana) worked with Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry) to develop the script. The cast includes Humphrey Bogart (In a Lonely Place), Edward G. Robinson (Double Indemnity), Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep), Lionel Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life), and Claire Trevor (Stagecoach). This was the fourth and final time that Bogart and Bacall would share the screen.
This story integrates the elements of film noir into a rich setting. The early moments of the film help to set up the story and give depth to the characters. The setup isn’t rushed, and it allows the characters to settle in. These moments of uneasy peace set up the explosion of events that follow soon after. The movie rapidly escalates as the real motives of the characters are revealed. While there are good and bad people, the line isn’t always clear. Instead, the story provides a collection of very flawed people. This movie also introduced audiences to one of the best written villains in all of film noir. Johnny Rocco, played by Robinson, is a complex and devious gangster. He’s also sadistic in ways that really push the intensity at just the right moments. The dialogue is generally good, although there are some moments that seem to push the gangster movie speech pattern. This one really pays off in the end, with a resolution that is both surprising and satisfying.
Prior to Key Largo, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson had worked together four times. In each of those movies Robinson was the top-billed star. This was the first time that Bogart took top billing. His performance showed that he was capable of being the leading man. Throughout this movie he slowly unveils a character who is complex and troubled. His delivery shifts at just the right moments, creating great chemistry with all of his co-stars. Regardless of billing, Edward G. Robinson also delivered a leading man type of performance. In creating Johnny Rocco, Robinson created a gangster with complicated motives and a sadistic streak. His scenes with Claire Trevor are some of the best moments in the film.
Lauren Bacall also does great work with her role in this one. Despite being married to Bogart, she avoids injecting any sense of familiarity into her moments with him. She also creates a bond with Lionel Barrymore that gives the relationship between their characters a lot of authenticity. Barrymore also does solid work with his scenes. There’s a lot of good acting in this one, but Claire Trevor truly did something special with her role in the movie. She understood that her character was neither a hero or villain in the story. Instead, she plays a character who understands that she is simply a casualty of circumstances she can no longer control. Her performance creates an emotionally unstable woman who depends on the opinions of others. In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, she sings “Moanin’ Low” while seemingly suffering a breakdown. Her work was good enough for her to take home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, the only win for this movie.
This movie has the look of classic film noir, using light and shadow to accentuate the tone of the story. Cinematographer Karl Freund (Metropolis) did a great job crafting the visuals and taking advantage of the sets. The costuming and production design also help to make this one look great. Max Steiner’s (Casablanca) score rounds out the overall feel of this one. This is a wonderful movie with a lot to offer fans of the stars and director John Huston. It’s also nice to see noir in a setting unlike many films in the genre. I give this one 4.8 out of 5 stars.