Like the similarly sweaty, claustrophobic 12 Angry Men nine years later, John Huston’s Key Largo is a rare adaptation of a stage play in which the physical constraints of the stagebound source material are a strength rather than a weakness.
Tension and tempers seethe within the confined space of an old hotel in the Florida Keys — linked to the mainland only by a far-flung causeway — while the unpredictable violence of the late summer hurricane season accentuates the rising inner and outer conflict.
Humphrey Bogart’s Frank McCloud is a variation on his most familiar persona, the disillusioned, cynical ex-soldier confronted with a crisis that puts his me‑first ethic to the test. What makes Key Largo different from Casablanca and To Have and Have Not is that it takes this familiar character out of his self-defined comfort zone and pits him against a postwar foe that rattles his nerves and tests his limits in a way that the Nazis and Vichy French never could.
Not that aging gangster Johnny Rocco (a bravura Edward G. Robinson in a memorable turn on his own best-known role) is really a worthy adversary for the canny McCloud. A formidable public enemy during the Prohibition era, now exiled to Cuba, Rocco has neither the self-awareness of Rains in Casablanca nor the equanimity of Seymour in To Have and Have Not. McCloud’s contempt for the thug is evident in his barely veiled mockery, flattery and manipulation.
Yet for all that McCloud recognizes that the desperation of a wounded old lion may make him all the more dangerous, and his anxiety is tangible. Wartime bravado has given way to postwar malaise, and even the tarnished valor of studied indifference is no longer an adequate defense.
The setting for the conflict is a hotel belonging to the family of a GI buddy of McCloud’s who was killed in battle. McCloud stops by to pay respects to the family, only to find a hotel under siege, occupied by gangsters staging a summit meeting. Despite the worrisome circumstances, McCloud is welcomed by his buddy’s war widow Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall in her fourth and final film with husband Bogart) and wheelchair-bound father (Lionel Barrymore), who are eager for the heroic details about their loved one’s last days that McCloud willingly provides.
Yet the ex-soldier is equally willing to disappoint the Temples’ expectations for similar heroism in their present straits, and hopes only to give Rocco a wide berth and ride out the storm. McCloud endures Rocco’s abuse of himself and his hosts, his cruelty to the local American Indians, even (in one of the film’s creepier touches) the unheard whispered obscenities that Rocco breathes in Nora Temple’s ear.
Ultimately, though, something cracks in both men, and McCloud risks Rocco’s wrath to return the small kindness of Rocco’s alcoholic moll (Claire Trevor), a drink for a drink, and the die is cast. Both McCloud and Rocco are men adrift in the post-war era, Rocco pining for the glory days of Prohibition, McCloud hoping to leave the past behind and move on to an unknown future. As Rocco’s desperate flailing increases, though, McCloud slowly finds the footing he needs to stand his ground.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.