Key Largo

(Check out my previous noir essay here: To Have and Have Not)

John Huston’s 1948 film Key Largo was the fourth and final time that actors and real-world lovers Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would co-star in a film together. Their previous outings had been on Lauren Bacall’s first film To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, both directed by Howard Hawks, as well as Delmer Daves Dark Passage. But their offscreen relationship would continue until Bogart’s death in 1957.

The film was the fourth collaboration between Bogart and Huston as they had worked previously on the classic film noir The Maltese Falcon and in the same year as Key Largo worked together on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Three years later, their collaboration would continue with The African Queen, and then two years after that with Beat the Devil.

The score for the film was provided by Max Steiner, a staple of the Hollywood system at that point who provided hundreds of scores for films from the 1930s to 60s, and sometimes more than a dozen in one year. Past classic works he had contributed to include King Kong, The Informer, Casablanca, and The Big Sleep (He would later score Sierra Madre, White Heat, House of Wax, and The Searchers). His score is incidental and ‘below’ the rest of the mise-en-scene of the film in the sense that it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Personally this is evidenced by the hole in my memory of this film of any music at all. Insofar as it Steiner was won’t to not make his score apparent, he succeeds, but only by weakening the potential of a stronger, more apparent score to heighten dramatic tensions, which I don’t believe Steiner does on this film.

The cinematography is also in an odd state in this film. The photographer was one Karl Freund, a German who began his career as a cinematographer in Germany in the 1910s. He developed through the classical period of that country’s cinema into the expressionistic period when he personally shot some of the most iconic films of that artistic movement in Paul Wegener’s The Golem, F.W. Murnau’s The Last Man, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. When he made the move to America in the early 1930s, he shot Dracula and later directed the classic horror film The Mummy. The American horror films of the period were inspired by the expressionistic cinema of Germany in the 20s and 30s, just as film noir would be in the coming years. One would think, therefore, that Freund’s work on a film noir like Key Largo would be be expressionistic in nature. But one would be sorely mistaken as the film is largely shot largely straightforwardly in a Hollywood workmanlike manner with only the occasional high contrast shot, no dutch angles or chiaroscuro or expressionistic staging. The result is a little bit depressing to one such as myself who finds the look of the film to be just as important as the substance of the work, and therefore could not in good conscious name Key Largo as one of my top 100 noirs (whereas the much sillier, occasionally badly scripted D.O.A. tops the list for the beauty of its compositions).

The story begins as former Major Frank McCloud (Bogart) rides on a bus through the Florida Keys. A police officer pulls over the bus and inspects its passengers to determine if any of them are the two Osceola boys who have escaped from prison. The kids aren’t there, so the bus goes on its merry way and McCloud eventually deboards at Key Largo, the largest of the Keys. There, he visits the main hotel on the island, owned by one Mr. James Temple with help from his widowed daughter Nora (Bacall). Nora’s deceased husband was Frank’s charge in the war aboard a large Navy vessel. George Temple gave in life in the process of fighting off German ships.

Also in the hotel are four thuggish types who perpetually hang out in the lobby, a middle-aged lush of a woman, and a man upstairs who stays in his room and out of sight of the others. A hurricane is forecast for later that night and when it comes, the hotel is closed down; the man upstairs makes his entrance, revealing himself to be Johnny Rocco, a notorious gangster of the prohibition period who has been exiled from America as a Public Enemy (Edward G. Robinson); and the hotel is taken over by his goons. The indigenous peoples of the keys who have sought out the hotel for shelter during the storm are turned away by the gangsters and the hotel is locked down. Another gangster, Ziggy, and his gang are set to visit the place and complete a transfer of money for a larger quantity of high-quality forgeries.

Meanwhile, a police officer who came by earlier to inspect the place and see if the Osceola brothers were there hiding out has been beaten up by Rocco’s goons. He is being held hostage, just as are the Temples and Frank Morgan. A dangerous game develops as Frank reconciles his current helpless state with his need to do something and his training as a member of the armed forces that taught him to do something. He tries to reconcile his current cowardice with the idea that after the war, America would no longer be same place it was before, that gangsters would no longer run amuck, and that those who fought would continue fighting to cleanse the world of those ancient evils.

He’s handed a gun by Rocco at one point who assures Frank that if he hates him so much and is willing to give his life to kill him that this is his shot, but that Frank will surely die in the process. Frank chickens out and the police officer instead grabs the gun and attempts to use its potential effect (killing the man it is currently pointing at: Rocco) as a bargaining chip to leave the hotel. Rocco shoots the man as he tries to leave, the police officer pulls his own trigger but finds that the gun was empty all along. This moment is key as it shows Frank Morgan that the deck is stacked against him, that no amount of idealism will beat the Underworld.

Frank becomes even more reconciled to his inability to do anything to get them out of this situation. Later, when the gangster’s boat is blown away during the hurricane, they conscript Frank to steer the only other boat at the dock toward Cuba where they will escape the law and continue their evil operations from afar. As Rocco pockets a gun, his moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor in a Academy Award winning role) begs to go along with them, but is turned down for her drunkenness, which Rocco finds bothersome, and makes her more trouble than she’s worth. During this scene, she picks his pocket, removes the gun, and a moment before Frank leaves, places it into his pocket instead.

The scene is set and a final showdown is ready to commence. But the idealism of the ending, of the good guy fighting the Underworld for idealistic purposes and winning, and escaping the altercation scathed, but alive, is too hopeful, too in line with normal Hollywood conventions. The man beats evil and lives to tell about it, and once he returns he will be a hero to the normal world and an enemy of the Underground. He will return with a life and job working at the Hotel Largo whereas he began a drifter, no longer employed by the Navy now the war is over, no longer needed. He will return into the loving arms of Nora Temple, his bravery winning her over, his connection with her deceased husband giving the two a familiarity heightened by the events of the day. Where’s my nihilism god damnit!


Cody Ward

[Next up: Dark Passage]


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