Key Largo (1948)

Key Largo (1948) is a classic film noir home invasion criminal versus returning war veteran drama thriller directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson.

A full noir cast however awaits within the reels of Key Largo (1948), revealed with the standard credit sequence and a short aerial introduction and voiceover, explaining where we are, embedding the physical in what turns out to be high impact environment, both human and meteorological.

Do not the gangsters of Milwaukee here represent the full material and criminal force of white America, neglecting first nations people on their stormy porches, murdering them, stuffing burning cigarettes into the mouths of the elders, and wrecking their culture and environment in favour of the brash city night-lit entertainments of film noir.

The native peoples of the Keys are always here seen in shadows, in a storm, in a clinging collective, despised and cast out, so far out that even the ultra-liberal Bogart and Bacall cannot really help them with much more than a smile and a photo call.

Of all the classic film noirs on the scene, there are few which do much to tip the balance of inequity and the fallen favour of civil and indigenous rights, than Key Largo (1948).

It is barely a theme at all in the cinema of the 1940s and 1950s, although where it exists it usually exists in what has come to be identified as film noir.

In the 1940s, the American moviegoer could step into her neighborhood theater and immerse herself in a world of celluloid dreams. The flickering silver screen offered an escape from reality, a respite from the harshness of life. 

Each week, she could witness a cavalcade of cinematic delights: newsreels, animated cartoons, tantalizing previews of coming attractions, and, of course, the pièce de résistance—the double feature.

These films, produced by the mighty Hollywood studios, spanned a wide spectrum of genres. From musicals that made hearts soar to gritty westerns that transported viewers to dusty frontiers, from suspenseful thrillers that kept audiences on the edge of their seats to heart-warming romances that stirred emotions—American movie screens were ablaze with diversity.

Yet amidst this kaleidoscope of entertainment, a shadowy trend began to emerge. A trend that would seep into the celluloid veins of cinema like ink staining parchment. These were not your run-of-the-mill tales; they were darker, more brooding. They delved into the murky depths of human nature—the greed, lust, and ambition that simmered beneath polished facades.

The cigar-chompin’ gangster, Rocco—yeah, that guy—his role ain’t no dime-store novel. Nah, he’s a piece of the puzzle, a jigsaw fit for a noir canvas. You see, back in the late 1940s, when dames wore their secrets like crimson lipstick and shadows whispered in dark alleys, Rocco stood tall. But he ain’t no ordinary hoodlum; he’s McCloud’s mirror image—a reflection of a world gone haywire.

Post-WWII, post-prohibition — hell, society’s got more cracks than a broken bottle. Rocco? He’s like a stray bullet — no clear target, just ricocheting through life. But don’t let that fool ya; his arrogance? It’s thicker than the smoke in a speakeasy. Picture this: Rocco yappin’ away while some poor sap tries to give him a clean shave. Can’t shut up about himself long enough to save his own skin.

But not everyone’s sippin’ the same bathtub gin. Mr. Temple—the guy with a limp and ideals as fragile as spun glass—he ain’t buyin’ Rocco’s act. Calls him “filth,” like he stepped in something nasty on the sidewalk. Temple’s seen it all—the darkness clawing at men’s souls, the rain-soaked streets where dreams drown.

Now here’s the twist. Rocco’s makin’ a comeback—a counterfeiter in a world where old tricks won’t cut it no more. Booze? Nah, prohibition’s dust in the wind. Slots? Fuhgeddaboudit! Rocco’s gotta forge his fortune now.

And ain’t it ironic? Bogart and Robinson—yeah, those two—played arch criminals back when gangster flicks ruled Warner Bros.’ roost. But now? Robinson’s got beef with Bogart—the man who wears noir like a tailored suit. McCloud? He’d rather be a yellow-bellied rat than push up daisies for Rocco.

But hold your horses; McCloud ain’t all self-preservation and cold steel. When he sees Dawn—the gal who stumbles through life like a three-legged dog—he shows her mercy. Maybe he ain’t so tough after all.

Thomas Gomez in Key Largo (1948)

And then there’s Nora — the dame with eyes like shattered glass. She sizes up McCloud, her gaze shiftin’ gears faster than a getaway car at midnight. From that moment on, everything changes—the moral compass swingin’, fate dealin’ new cards.

Picture this: rain-slicked city streets reflecting neon signs in the dead of night. A world where private investigators prowled like hungry wolves, their eyes sharp as switchblades. Police detectives navigated treacherous alleys while criminals slithered through shadows like serpents. It was a world devoid of sentimentality—a place where men with no future and women with a past collided in one-room walk-ups.

These films—these films noirs—were born from ink-stained pages across the Atlantic. The term itself—a fusion of French flair and American grit—was coined in 1946 by Nino Frank. The French had already dipped their quills into this uniquely American phenomenon before anyone else took notice. Perhaps it was their distance from Hollywood during World War II that allowed them to see what others missed.

The French critics initially brushed off these films as mere curiosities. But then came a summer like no other—a cinematic tempest that swept across Paris screens. Five films materialized: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, Otto Preminger’s Laura, Edward Dmytryk’s Murder, My Sweet (known as My Lovely in Europe), Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, and Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window. These were not your typical celluloid confections; they shared an atmosphere—an unusual cruelty tinged with eroticism.

Lionel Barrymore in Key Largo (1948)

Fans of noir and all things poetic and cinematic will swoon to see Bogart and Bacall filmed with such precision, revealing the world-beating expressive beauty of both their faces, with every delicate shade and touch permitted to glow.

And so it was that film noir etched itself into history—a genre where shadows danced with secrets, where femme fatales wore danger like perfume, and where every gunshot echoed like a broken promise. The French had seen it first—the dark heart beating beneath Hollywood’s glitzy façade—and they christened it with ink-black letters: film noir.

Key Largo was the fourth collaboration between director John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, who had combined previously on The Maltese Falcon (1941), Across the Pacific (1942), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Maxwell Anderson's 1939 play, in which Paul Muni played McCloud, was adapted for the screen by Huston and Richard Brooks, who gave us Brute Force (1947), Crossfire (1947) and Mystery Street (1950).

Contrasted with Frank’s secretive ways, Rocco’s boisterousness stands out. Once a notorious criminal, Rocco’s time in exile has reduced his stature to that of a common crook on the run. While he lacks influence, he compensates with his strong personality. The viewer quickly learns that feeding Rocco’s imagination is as simple as child’s play. 

Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo (1948)

Throughout the film, Frank plays a psychological game with Rocco, subtly testing him and revealing the gangster’s satisfaction from self-aggrandizement. Whether Rocco is delusional or not in his dreams of becoming an ‘important figure’ in America is almost beside the point; the sheer force of his personality poses a real threat. Edward G. Robinson, who famously portrayed Rico Caesar in Little Caesar, takes on an even more misogynistic and brutally violent role as Johnny Rocco in Key Largo. At times, Rocco is downright inhuman, deriving pleasure from the misery of others

Trips to the Keys in the cinematic parlance of the day were previewed and teased by the means of the following lobby-card style taglines, intended to inform and attract the noir-loving citizens of the immediate post-war period, and these included:

A storm of fear and fury in the sizzling Florida Keys !

WHERE MEN IN HIDING WAITED...WITH READY GUN! (original print ad - all caps)

Gun Fury in the TROPICS!

TROPICAL FURY! (original ad - all caps)

5-Star Entertainment Explodes On The Screen!

A cast as explosive as its story!

John Huston’s film Key Largo, set in post-World War II America, unapologetically showcases the pessimism that enveloped the nation after the war. The loss of self-respecting identity is epitomized by Frank McCloud, portrayed by Humphrey Bogart. McCloud, a war veteran turned homeless drifter, embodies a subdued version of Travis Bickle. 

His pre-service vibrancy has faded, replaced by depression and deliberate indifference. Moments of tenderness reminiscent of Rick Blaine in Casablanca emerge, but McCloud also displays selfishness and cowardice due to his post-war pessimism. His ambiguous character adds depth.

Claire Trevor in Key Largo (1948)

Lauren Bacall, in an atypical role, departs from her usual femme fatale persona. As Nora, a sweet and kind-hearted widow caring for her father-in-law, she shares genuinely charming moments with McCloud. Nora’s presence influences McCloud, prompting him to reconsider his moral stance and contemplate standing up to the gangsters.

Edward G. Robinson, dynamite in every scene, portrays Johnny Rocco, a charismatic gangster who takes over a hotel in Key Largo during a hurricane. Rocco exudes control and authority, effortlessly matching Bogart’s intensity.

Despite minimal attention-seeking shots or fancy camera work, the film employs noir-ish elements through lighting and prominent shadows. The claustrophobia of staging 90% of the film within the hotel’s confines enhances suspense. However, some clumsily directed shootout scenes now appear comical.

Key Largo grapples with whether assertive action matters in the bigger picture—a potent theme complemented by strong direction and acting.

Frank McCloud, portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, is a complex character in Key Largo. Disillusioned and drifting since World War II, he visits the family of a fallen comrade, George Temple, whose bravery he admired. Implicit in his visit is an unspoken apology: he, not their loved one, is returning home. The fallen soldier’s unseen presence haunts the film, mocking Frank’s perceived cowardice and inability to stand up to Johnny Rocco (played by Bogart). Frank’s eventual decision to confront Rocco represents a victory against the fear that plagues and shames him.

Key Largo reflects the post-war generation’s struggle. It's been said before, but it's an object lesson in the noir expression of the post-war mentality of the struggling paranoid soon to be prosperous  and yet crime obsessed American mind. While national memories of World War II are often proud and triumphant, countless individuals returned scarred physically and mentally. Frank, despite being a decorated soldier, feels inadequate—perhaps because he survived while his friend did not. He returns to a country where he no longer fits, lacking pride or satisfaction. The confrontation with Rocco provides him with an opportunity to make things right with his world—a chance unique to Hollywood or the stage where the story originated.

“People always say, ‘Didn’t you have fun making that picture?’ Well, you don’t have fun. It’s not a party. It’s hard work. But Key Largo was fun. And I adored John. I was just enchanted by him. […] [Bogart] had great wit, great sophistication, and he was really very sweet. As soft as butter, in fact”.

Claire Trevor: The Life and Films of the Queen of Noir

Key Largo, directed by John Huston, is indeed a classic film noir crime drama. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, and Lauren Bacall, it features a gripping storyline set in a run-down Florida hotel taken over by a gang of thugs and their mobster boss, played by the sociopathic Edward G. Robinson. Bacall and Bogart, who were married in real life, share the screen for the final time in this film, making it their finest collaboration.

Marc Lawrence in Key Largo (1948)

Robinson’s portrayal of Johnny Rocco is memorable, more than memorable, it is seminal, it is historic and ahistoric, it is one of the finer moments of the noir decade. And with his demented yet wise demeanour. The Largo Hotel becomes the stage for drama, heroism, and impending danger as a hurricane approaches. The tension between Bogart’s Frank McCloud and Robinson’s Rocco builds to a climactic confrontation—a battle of wills against the backdrop of nature’s fury.

Key Largo (1948)

Directed by John Huston
Genres - Film Noir, Action-Adventure, Crime, Drama, Home Invasion, Thriller, Based On A Play, Classic Film Noir  |   Release Date - Jul 16, 1948  |   Run Time - 100 min. 

No comments:

Post a Comment