Noirvember: “Key Largo” (1948)

Key Largo”, the fourth and final film pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, is significantly different from their previous movies together. The film does have elements of noir, but neither actor plays their typical character, and, in fact, much of the movie’s focus is on another character entirely.

Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a World War II veteran who travels to his late war buddy George Temple’s hotel in Key Largo, where he meets with George’s father James (Lionel Barrymore) and widow Nora (Lauren Bacall) and tells them of George’s bravery. They are all confined to the hotel when a hurricane moves in, and are quickly taken hostage by the hotel’s guests, who turn out to be members of the notorious Johnny Rocco’s (Edward G. Robinson) gang. Rocco proves his brutality early on, and states his intention to hold them all hostage until contacts from Miami arrive to strike a deal with him.

Real life couple Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart costar in “Key Largo”

The cast of “Key Largo” is overwhelmingly amazing. Bogart and Bacall are great together as always, although their chemistry is infinitely more subtle compared to such films as “To Have and Have Not” and “The Big Sleep”. Barrymore’s performance as James is made more impressive by his passionate speeches, at one point standing up from his wheelchair in an attempt to strike one of Rocco’s henchmen (Barrymore was wheelchair-bound in real life due to severe arthritis, so one can only imagine how painful filming that scene was for him). The supporting cast includes Monte Blue, John Rodney, Thomas Gomez, Harry Lewis, and the great Dan Seymour. But there are two real scene-stealers. The first is Robinson, who breathes life into Rocco by giving one of his best and harshest gangster performances of his entire career. There have been lots of great portrayals of gangsters given by different actors in Hollywood of the years, including Cagney and even Bogart himself, but no one could have played this role better than Robinson. The other scene-stealer is Claire Trevor, who plays Rocco’s alcoholic girlfriend Gaye Dawn. One of the highlights of the film is the scene in which Rocco tells Dawn he won’t give her a drink until she sings for everyone. Trevor was not a trained singer, and wanted to rehearse the scene first. Instead, director John Huston decided to film the scene without giving Trevor any warning, so she was decidedly nervous—just the feeling Huston wanted to capture. Trevor won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.

Despite being confined to the hotel for the majority of the film (the story was based on a Broadway play), “Key Largo” is thrilling from start to finish, making for both a compelling gangster movie and a little commentary on people’s disillusionment following World War II. The movie ends with an exciting shootout on a boat, which was actually supposed to be the ending to “To Have and Have Not”. When Huston couldn’t figure out how to end “Key Largo”, Howard Hawks gave him that ending, which he wasn’t able to fit into his film a few years ago.

“Key Largo” is available to rent or purchase on all digital platforms, and will be airing on TCM on November 28th at 6 AM EST. Runtime: 100 minutes.

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