Check out Norma's blog today for a certain item of, shall we say, etiquette, but don't do so on a full stomach. Now then, I'm doing a movie review today, and by a stroke of timing, Maria posted some background on the star of today's classic over at her blog. Head on over and take a look at it. And if you haven't read it before, check out an earlier review I wrote for The Maltese Falcon.
"When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses." ~ Frank McCloud
"After living in the USA for more than thirty five years, they called me an undesirable alien. Me, Johnny Rocco. Like I was a dirty Red or something." ~ Johnny Rocco
"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." Frank McCloud
Director and master storyteller John Huston reunited with Humphrey Bogart in 1948 for Key Largo, an intense character study trapping good and bad people together in a storm. It was also the last on screen performance together with Bogart's wife Lauren Bacall, after the classics To Have And Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Dark Passage. The film featured performances from outstanding actors, one of whom won an Oscar, and told a tense, tightly wound story that stands today as a true classic.
Frank McCloud (Bogart) arrives in Key Largo to pay his respects to the father of George, a soldier he commanded during the war, a friend who died in Europe. He finds himself at the old man's hotel in Key Largo, meeting the widow, Nora Temple (Bacall), and a handful of guests, all of whom seem shifty. There's another guest in the hotel, someone keeping to himself, but who came with the others. Then he meets the man he's come to see. James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) still runs the establishment with Nora's help, even though he's confined to a wheelchair. Frank tells Nora and James about the death of George, and before long, the weather starts to turn.
Frank, Nora, and James quickly find themselves held hostage by the others, criminals under the employ of the last guest, a gangster named Johnny Rocco, exiled to Cuba (this being before the days of Castro, mind you) after the feds went after him. Rocco (played by Edward G. Robinson), envisions his return, has big plans, and his presence at the hotel ties into those plans. As the night wears on, the hurricane builds in intensity, and tension persists between the two sides, the audience is taken along through that tension as it builds and builds.
Huston of course is one of the masters of Hollywood directing, spending an illustrious career making classic films. He adapted Key Largo alongside screenwriter Richard Brooks from a Broadway play by Maxwell Anderson. You can see the stage roots of the story; much of the story is set in and around the hotel, and it's intensely character driven. Huston's skill is in driving up the tension in a story that features very little action, and he succeeds. The antagonism and clashing personalities just keeps building throughout the film, leaving the audience on the edge. Some of the exteriors were shot on location in Florida, and Huston used stock footage from another film for the hurricane itself, while interiors were shot on set in LA. Huston even uses lighting- or the lack thereof- to convey the threat of a hurricane, and even incorporates it into the dialogue. At one point the mention of a previous hurricane's toll sends a chill up the spine.
The cast is wonderfully assembled, and ideally cast. It starts with Rocco's underlings, all of them character actors of the time: each of them are abrasive in different ways, playing lowlife thugs. The audience already doesn't like them before we know what they're up to. There's a wild card among them, Rocco's girlfriend Gaye (Claire Trevor). She's a boozing former nightclub singer, a bit volatile, used to being treated badly, but she does have a conscience. Trevor won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, and it's a well deserved award. It's a difficult role to play, a weak and self destructive person in many ways, but also sympathetic. Robinson spent his career playing mainly gangsters and nefarious types, and this is one of his best roles, if not his best. The character is explosive, cruel, and bullying, with an unhealthy sense of delusions of grandeur. He's a sociopath and a monster who doesn't care who gets hurt, just as long as he gets what he wants. And like all bullies, there is something of the coward in him. Lionel Barrymore, who spent much of his life on stage and screen playing character roles, gets to have a sympathetic role this time out as James Temple, confined to a wheelchair. He mourns his son, has principles and integrity, and isn't afraid to stand up to bullies.
The two leads share marvelous chemistry, not a surprise given their off screen lives. Bacall plays Nora as a strong, outspoken woman, mourning the loss of her husband, but also loyal to and protective of her father-in-law. It speaks volumes that in the years since her husband's death, she has stayed on with James. She is stoic in the face of danger, and brings such expressiveness in her performance. Bogart gives his character a world weariness and disillusioned quality through much of the film. There's an accusation made in the midst of the narrative about his time in the war, and we are left to wonder if that accusation is true... or if he's merely biding his time, wisely waiting for the right moment. It's another terrific performance in a career of good performances.
Key Largo still stands today as one of John Huston's finest films. He gives us sheer tension with minimal action just through a dangerous situation and taut, measured dialogue. And he manages a cast who inhabit their roles, on two sides of a gulf between right and wrong. The cast rises to the occasion magnificently, playing characters with hidden depth and complicated personalities, giving us memorable performances.