Key Largo Is A Classic That Never Gets Old

Key Largo Is A Classic That Never Gets Old

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, what better film to check out than Key Largo? The 1948 film references the most deadly hurricane in U.S. history (over 800 killed in 1935) and reunites director John Huston with Humphrey Bogart, who reincarnates his Rick Blaine character in Frank McCloud—a self-absorbed cynic who doesn’t plan to stick his neck out for anybody. Only a doofus would think that McLoud won’t eventually embrace the hero’s role in this simple melodrama, and Bogie delivers. Although it’s not even the best Huston-Bogart collaboration of the year (compared to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), the film stands up remarkably well with supporting work by Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson.

key largo movie

With a hurricane brewing off the Florida Keys, McCloud drops by Hotel Largo to visit the widow and father of a friend that died under his WWII command in Italy. Nora Temple (Bacall) and her father-in-law James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) are thankful for news of their deceased beloved and invite McCloud to spend the night. It’s fall, so the hotel isn’t booking tourists, but several suspicious heavies are hanging around the lobby and manning the bar. Were it not for alcoholic lush, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), McCloud wouldn’t even get a welcome drink. It turns out that prominent mobster Johnny Rocco (Robinson) and his henchmen have rented the entire hotel for the week, as they gather counterfeit money and prepare to flee to Cuba.

Complicating matters are the law officers making queries in the Keys for a couple of escaped convicts, both Osceola tribesmen that figure to return to their Key Largo homeland. The most embarrassing scenes are the ones with Jay “me no speak good English” Silverheels using his Tonto persona to deliver his cameo role of Tom; at least he refrains from calling his trusted white friend “kemosabe” this time. Huston inserts a bit of social consciousness with the mistreatment of the Indians, but these scenes play much better visually than when Silverheels lets loose with his stereotypical dialogue.

inside the hotel

Mostly set inside the hotel, the best scenes happen during the storm. The gangsters begin to freak, worrying about what happens during a hurricane. It’s almost comical to see these bullies break down like insecure babies. Fearful for his life, an animated Robinson gets frantic while the indifferent Bogart taunts, “You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it.” In a sense, Rocco copes by becoming more and more inhumane during the storm, from refusing shelter to the large Indian family to denying his alcoholic girlfriend a drink to shooting a police officer in cold blood. This all develops the tension and adds to the suspense—will the indifferent McCloud overcome his natural fears and confront the villain despite the odds? Although we know the eventual outcome, Huston builds the melodrama competently.

By today’s standards, Key Largo now comes across far too theatrically to work well, but it’s still worth watching for the atmosphere, the acting icons, and the occasionally witty dialogue. Mostly thought of as a vacation paradise, Huston transforms the Florida Keys into a claustrophobic universe—linked by one isolated highway, which allow very little freedom in the face of pursuing law officers and oncoming storms. The locals all know each other and have formed a symbiotic community, setting the hotel owner in a precarious position for trusting outsiders. This results in a basic good vs. evil contest with predictable outcome, so the main pleasures come from the details.

Ironically, the only Oscar awarded was for Trevor’s ham-fisted portrayal of a hard drinking floozy. Never known for its sophistication, the Academy often rewards the most blatant and outrageous performances, as if this is real acting. Far better are the controlled efforts turned in by Bogart, Bacall, and Robinson—the real center of Huston’s film. Those three live on in film history, and Key Largo will always be remembered during hurricane season.