Monday, September 1, 2014

Key Largo Movie Review

Lauren Bacall wasn’t a great actress. This much I’ve learned from watching the four films she made with Humphrey Bogart. But she was a great movie star. She had tremendous screen presence and could practically make the tough Bogart roll over and beg. In Key Largo, their final film together, although I didn’t tally the minutes, I would venture to say they share more screen time than in any other of their previous three outings.

Key Largo was based on a now obscure stage play by Maxwell Anderson about a WWII veteran who runs afoul of a once-notorious mafia kingpin while passing through the Florida Keys and spending time with the family of a slain war buddy. The action is very dialogue heavy, a lot of it indoors in various settings around a hotel mostly closed for the off season. It’s not the most expressive film for a John Huston-directed picture, but he makes the most out of the cramped settings.

Huston adapted the screenplay along with Richard Brooks (who later wrote and directed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, another more famous Southern-set film from a play). They move some of the scenes out of doors to escape the stagey feel induced by the limited indoor sets. The whole thing takes place during the buildup to and arrival of a hurricane, which is one of those hammy theatrical devices that reflect the tension of what’s happening in the story.

Bogart is Frank McCloud, who stops in just for a short while to talk to the old hotel owner James Temple about his deceased son. Temple’s widowed daughter-in-law, Nora (Bacall), lives there too. The hotel has been bought out by a group of men waiting for something. We sense something is wrong in their style of dress, their behaviors, and manner of speaking from the moment Frank walks in the place. They claim they’re on a fishing trip, but they don’t look like leisurely men. A woman traveling with them drinks too much and has to be confined to her room occasionally. One of their crew never leaves his room. That’s because he’s Johnny Rocco, a renowned ex-bootlegger trying to rebuild the empire he lost when Prohibition ended.

The story is all tense build up and threats of action. For the most part the only action that occurs on screen until the final minutes is a fierce hurricane that blows a window in and gives everyone a good scare. Between Frank and Nora there is an easy look and the hint of a possible romance, but one that is never explored. It’s the best use of the emotional chemistry between Bogart and Bacall because there’s little their characters can do to act on their feelings. She’s the widow of his old friend. As James Temple, Lionel Barrymore is a formidable presence, throwing more character into his wheelchair-bound old man than everyone combined. He has the strength and the guts to put a man like Rocco in his place, but lacks the physical ability. Then there’s the clash between Rocco and Frank. Frank is a war veteran, a man who fought for the ideals of his country and to rid the world of people like Johnny Rocco, who is himself a creature of the past. He’s a man desperately trying to hold on to a former way of life. The casting of Edward G. Robinson aids in solidifying that tension. Robinson was one of Warner Bros. big stars, mainly of gangster pictures, but his career was winding down in 1948 just as Bogart’s was in full swing.

The film is front-loaded with some really good performances. In addition to those mentioned, Claire Trevor, who won an Oscar, gives a highly effective performance as Johnny’s girl Gaye Dawn, who spends the entire movie either drunk or hung over and begging for another drink. No doubt she mostly won for a scene when Johnny compels her on the spot to sing one of the old nightclub songs she used to perform, like a circus animal, for her next drink. Barrymore is simply wonderful as feisty old man waylaid by his condition in such a way that he’s left literally incapable of standing up for himself. Great character actors like Thomas Gomez, Marc Laurence, and Harry Lewis fill out the rest of Johnny’s gang.

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