Key Largo (1948): John Huston’s Crime Drama, Fourth and Last Teaming of Bogart and Bacall

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Key Largo was the fourth and final film pairing of married actors Bogart and Bacall, after “To Have and Have Not” (1944), “The Big Sleep” (1946), and “Dark Passage” (1947).

Our grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The tale was adapted by Richard Brooks and Huston from Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play of the same name, which enjoyed only a moderate run on Broadway with 105 performances in 1939-1940 season.

John Huston’s taut direction, Richard Brooks’ sharp character-driven scenario, Karl Freund’s deep-focus black-and-white imagery, and a superlative cast headed by Bogart, elevate “Key Largo” way above its genre, the crime-gangster drama. It also  suggests how, assigned to the right director, a movie based on a play doesn’t have to be theatrical.

Well cast and then at the peak of his career, Bogart stars as Frank McCloud, a disillusioned WW II veteran who travels to Florida’s Key Largo to pay his respects to the family of a friend who was killed in WWII.

The hotel in which he stays is operated by the father of the deceased, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), and the young widow, Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall, Bogart’s real life).

Upon arrival, the Temples are busy in preparations for a major threatening storm.  In fact, some Seminole Indians arrive in small boats, seeking shelter. Among them are the siblings John and Tom Osceola, who had escaped from prison. Sheriff Wade and Deputy Sawyer had visited the hotel earlier searching for the fugitives.

key_largo_5_bacall_bogartIt doesn’t take long for McCloud to realize that the hotel’s guests are criminals, who are holding the deputy prisoner, and would not let the other guests leave before business is done.  The gang’s aging leader is recognized by McCloud as Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a gangster who had been deported after running a mob empire. He has recently returned from Cuba by a ship, accompanied by Gaye Dawn (Trevor), his alcoholic mistress and a former singer, who is forced to perform for the guests.

Filled with conflicts and tensions, the whole plot builds up toward a climactic confrontation between McCloud and Johnny Rocco.

Claire Trevor won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance (see below).  But the whole cast is good, Robinson, as the fallen crime czar, Bogart as the anti-hero who becomes a hero, and even Lauren Bacall.

Detailed Plot (Narrative Structure)

Frank McCloud (Bogart) arrives at the Hotel Largo in Key Largo, Florida, to visit the family of George Temple, a friend from the Army killed in the Italian campaign. He meets with George’s widow Nora Temple (Bacall) and his father James (Lionel Barrymore), who owns the hotel.

The winter vacation season has ended, and a major hurricane is approaching, The hotel has only six guests: the dapper Toots (Harry Lewis), the boorish Curly (Thomas Gomez), stone-faced Ralph (William Haade), servant Angel (Dan Seymour), an older woman, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), and a sixth man who’s secluded in his room. They claim to have come for a fishing trip.

Upon meeting Nora and James Temple, Frank tells them where George is buried, and recounts the latter’s heroism under fire. Nora states that George frequently mentioned Frank in his letters. Frank reveals to them, the intimacy, that is the experience of men at war in combat.

The three begin preparing the hotel for the coming hurricane, but are interrupted by Sheriff Ben Wade (Monte Blue) and his deputy Sawyer (John Rodney), who are looking for the Osceola brothers, Native Americans who escaped from Sheriff’s custody after being arrested on minor charges. Soon after the police leave, the local Seminoles show up seeking shelter at the hotel along with the Osceola brothers.

With the storm approaching, Curly, Ralph, Angel and Toots pull guns and take the Temples and Frank hostage. It turns out the sixth member is notorious gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson), who was exiled to Cuba for being undesirable alien.  As they are held at gunpoint, Temple insults Rocco, who responds by taunting Temple.

Rocco gives Frank a pistol and offers to fight a duel with him, but Frank declines–he believes in self-preservation over heroics, plus “one Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for.” Sawyer grabs the gun and tries to escape, but Rocco shoots him; it becomes apparent that the gun  Rocco gave to Frank was not loaded.

Rocco intends to hold the Temples and Frank hostage until his American contacts from Miami arrive to conclude a deal. As the storm rages, the Seminoles huddle outside, as Rocco and company worry about storm damage and insist the Indians stay outside.

Rocco forces former moll Gaye to sing for them and then berates her for poor performance and fading looks. Nora reveals to Frank that she knows that the story he told earlier about her husband’s heroism was false and that Frank was the real hero.

After the storm subsides, Sheriff Ben Wade is looking for Sawyer, who had called from the hotel. Temple is forced by Rocco to lie and say that he has not seen the deputy, but Wade discovers Sawyer’s corpse. Rocco blames the killing on the Osceolas, whom Wade confronts in the boathouse.

After Wade leaves with Sawyer’s body, Rocco’s contact Ziggy (Marc Lawrence) arrives to conclude the deal. Rocco sells Ziggy counterfeit money and then forces Frank, a skillful seaman, to take him and his band to Cuba on one of the hotel’s boats.

Rocco pays James Temple for the stay and has his henchmen gather everyone’s bags except for Gaye’s–he has decided not to take her to Cuba. Frank agrees to take the men to Cuba.

Gaye makes a last-ditch attempt to convince Rocco to take her, using the embrace to steal Rocco’s gun and hand it to Frank. Rocco tries to trick Frank into thinking that he is giving up and throws out one of the other henchman’s guns onto the ship deck, but Frank is not fooled and shoots Rocco as he comes up with his gun. Frank pilots the boat back to Key Largo, and asks if they can put him through to the hotel. He then calls Nora to tell her he is coming back.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Supporting Actress: Claire Trevor

Oscar Awards: 1

Oscar Context:

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Claire Trevor won the Supporting Actress Oscar at her second nomination.  Her first nomination was in 1937, for “Dead End,” in which she played a prostitute and Bogart was cast as a gangster named Baby Face Martin.  Trevor received her third and last nomination in 1954, for the disaster (airplane) melodrama, “The High and the Mighty.”

Note:

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Cast:

Humphrey Bogart as Maj. Frank McCloud

Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco/Howard Brown

Lauren Bacall as Nora Temple

Lionel Barrymore as James Temple

Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn

Thomas Gomez as Richard “Curly” Hoff

Harry Lewis as Edward “Toots” Bass

John Rodney as Deputy Sheriff Clyde Sawyer

Marc Lawrence as Ziggy

Dan Seymour as Angel Garcia

Monte Blue as Sheriff Ben Wade

William Haade as Ralph Feeney

Jay Silverheels as John Osceola

Notes

Bogart was the favorite actor of John Huston, who was responsible for catapulting him to major stardom in their first teaming, The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Bacall died on August 12, 2014.  She co-starred with Bogart in four films: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo (1948). Their first feature has become a cult movie due to the strong chemistry between them, and some witty lines uttered by Bacall in her screen debut.

Bogart, Robinson and Trevor had also starred in the 1938 film The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, and Bogart and Trevor had teamed in the 1937 film Dead End.