Key Largo (1948, John Huston)
To make a very 1940s analogy, the differing interpretations and uses of Humphrey Bogart by various great directors are not terribly dissimilar in scope to those of fellow Warner Bros. star Bugs Bunny; Bugs was a distinctive, iconic character but also a malleable one, and Friz Freleng’s Bugs is eventually very easy to distinguish from Chuck Jones’. And Bogie is always Bogie to some extent, even when he’s an anonymous asshole, even when he’s a marbles-lost military lifer, even when he’s an unlikely romantic lead; that’s just how magnetic a figure he naturally drew. But the reason we know that Bogart was not just a great star but a great actor is that his performance in a Hawks picture can feel so different from one in a Curtiz or Huston picture. In To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks projects our fondest wishes onto him: he is the coolheaded captain of fates we all long to be or to know in our more desperate moments; there is an element of wish fulfillment to those performances. Bogart was not a conventional heartthrob in any sense, not least because he was already in his forties when he became a huge box office draw, which is why casting him as the sort of man who always knows “what’s going on” and always knows just how to deal with it is such a stroke of Hollywood ingenuity.
John Huston — perhaps a marginally less brilliant director than Hawks, but one whose personal frailties and indulgences are more readily visible in his work — buys into this in his very first feature and first with Bogart, the classic Hammett adaptation The Maltese Falcon; there’s rarely a moment when his Sam Spade isn’t well ahead of the audience, not to mention the other characters. But Huston — a man’s man if there ever was one — would ultimately come back to poke holes in the hyper-masculine Bogart persona in a trio of remarkable films from 1948 through 1951, all of which generate some of the actor’s strongest, most masterfully fine-tuned performances. Treasure of the Sierra Madre obviously needs no introduction, and permits Bogart to explore the absolute dregs of humanity through a character losing a struggle with greed, good fortune and death in slow motion. The African Queen (for which Bogart won an Academy Award) would puncture the Bogart mythos in other ways, rendering comic and fallible his old-fashioned knowhow. The ways in which Key Largo toys with Bogart’s persona are subtler, almost elegiac; this is a man, Frank McCloud, whose entire existence seems to be built on a myth, one he cannot uphold — he’s too weak, too real, too human to be Sam Spade or Rick Blaine or Steve Morgan, and the fallout is uneasy enough to linger long after the film’s relatively pat conclusion.
The vast majority of Key Largo, absent its enigmatic opening scene on Seven Mile Bridge, was filmed on the Warner lot, but the film’s artificial yet deeply evocative sense of place is as strong as in Casablanca, and Huston unlike Michael Curtiz harnesses this bit of studio magic for claustrophobia and menace. It is much more an archetypal film noir than the other 1940s Bogart films, awash in ambiguity and thoroughly absent of onscreen heroism — indeed, heroism itself is an external artifact looked upon with longing and bleak nostalgia, something that only ends in death. Huston’s chameleon-like style communicates heat and chaos; the hurricane that hits in the course of the narrative feels wet and wild enough to touch, and the elaborate, three-dimensional set manages simultaneously to feature walls that seem to close in on the cast and the viewer and to genuinely capture the lazy, isolated feeling of a coastal tourist town — whether there’s a storm brewing or not. There are not many “rooms” in cinema that become as memorable or come to seem as real as the lobby at the Hotel Largo, suffused with dampness and an indistinct simmering, as though the miseries and resentments between its characters were manifesting as something physical. There’s horror inside the hurricane house but there is also a certain tentativeness, a weird uncertainty of purpose and spirit, that makes the film feel unresolved, unpredictable, and permits it to feel almost invasive. (More than one scene centers around whispering, which we can’t always make out, as though Huston’s goal is to withhold information and keep us off balance.)
Key Largo is based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, and while it’s easy to conceive the modest scale of its claustrophobic setting (the stifling hotel contrasting the open beauty of the area) working on stage, it’s an exceptionally good subject for a cinematic expansion of sorts. Bogart’s McCloud arrives as a specter, ambiguously turning his head away from cops on a bus ride to the Keys where he looks up the family of an old war buddy who was killed; the dead commanding officer, George Temple, left behind a wife (Lauren Bacall) and father (Lionel Barrymore) who run a ramshackle inn called the Hotel Largo. McCloud tells a series of harrowing, attractive stories about George’s war service to the Temples, who listen attentively, before begging an early departure that ends up not happening; there’s a certain convenience to all this that feels slightly unreal, expired war camaraderie harnessed for personal gain — or, perhaps, the hope of gain — that’s never properly explained away, to the film’s considerable benefit. McCloud remains an enigma to the end of the picture, as though the sun-dappled extremity of the Keys were meant to be his grave, but he walks into a breeding ground for eccentrics whose morality is much less unknowable. The Temples seem to be easily manipulated, as their hotel has become the prortacted hideout of a celebrated Cuban gangster — familiar to McCloud — called Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his troupe of cronies who claim to be on Key Largo in order to “fish our brains out.”
McCloud and the Temples find themselves at the center of a drama already well in progress that involves a suitcase full of counterfeit bills and an extraneous dame, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), who’s proving a nuisance to the crooks with her relentless alcoholism and unwillingness to shut up, and comes over time to incorporate a vicious hurricane, nervous fantasies about Prohibition coming back, cops showing up, windows bursting open, and a (weakly rendered) group of Seminoles in need of shelter from storm and police. Like the protagonist, we are given little context or explanation of all this, just thrown right in the middle of it — which makes it stronger as a narrative, in some ways, than the pictures in which Bogart is “in control.” Certainly the mysterious core of his character, whereby there’s no clear reason to view him as much more trustworthy than the villains, adds a certain tension that wouldn’t fit well in the Chandler and Hammett adaptations; and it’s equally important that his relationship with real-life wife Bacall in this film is so much more complicated and multifaceted than in their other pairings. It’s perhaps also worth taking into account that Key Largo is repositioned to take place a few years after the war, and that its bleary-eyed, bleak and hungover feeling captures the dispiriting mood of the times that, while obviously a film noir trope, forecasts the increasing bleakness of star vehicles as the studios moved into the early 1950s.
Broadly, Key Largo — like nearly all of Huston’s films — is skeptical of the kind of heroism and hero worship that sits at the center of something as mythologically elemental as Casablanca. The villain Robinson portrays is made pathetic as often as he’s viewed as menacing, with Lionel Barrymore’s neutered attempts at attacking him delivered with more dignity than the paranoid, cruel behavior of the bigshot Rocco who takes the family hostage; indeed, one of the most memorable lines James Temple lobs at his captor is the devastating own revolving around the gun usually protruding from Rocco’s person — “I bet you spend hours posing in front of a mirror holding it.” Huston and co-screenwriter Richard Brooks give Major McCloud more negative traits and thus more dimension than is stereotypically expected of Bogart’s heroes, but they also are sympathetic of the toll the past decade has taken on such a man, leaving it mostly to our imagination how life after the service turned him into the kind of person who’s somewhat familiar with — and fearful of — Rocco’s tactics, the chief reason he is unable to shoot him when he has the chance, to the disappointment of his audience, irrespective of the later revelation that the gun is unloaded. Gaye’s remark that it’s “better to be a live coward than a dead hero” captures the traditional Bogart sense of self-preservation, which appears even in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, while carrying it to its conclusion: he’s one of us, and he’s already destroyed. So much of the haunting nature of Huston’s film is down to the unstated horrors and disappointments that hang on the people and places like moss. (There is, at one point, a direct mention of the Battle of San Pietro, which Huston witnessed firsthand, filming a short documentary about it for the U.S. Army, significant and for a time infamous for its unusually muted attitude toward the war.)
Something else that sets Key Largo apart from the rest of the best-known Bogart pictures is that he is very much part of an ensemble here; we begin and end the story with him, but for most of the duration, he’s a modest presence in a room full of frightened people on edge, in a sweltering room that’s getting hotter as a cop and a few innocents get caught in Rocco’s crosshairs, direct and otherwise. Bogart and Bacall, so often the unmistakable leads in their films, both deliberately sink into the ample shadows as much as possible, with Bacall’s worried passivity adding up to one of her most effective performances. Everyone else trapped in that lobby while the storm passes is larger than life: Edward G. Robinson as Rocco, introduced in the bathtub, projecting nefarious confidence — there’s an astounding single shot in which he’s getting shaved and spitting out incessant mockery while the camera moves in closer — until the weather starts to get to him. In addition to Bacall’s direct physical attack, his other enemies prove formidable in integrity if nothing else. After Mrs. Temple spits on him, her father-in-law hisses that he’d love to do the same, and as Rocco says at one point, he never places the elderly wheelchair-bound man in a position of any kind of power to hurt anyone, because he sincerely believes that he actually will.
But it’s in Claire Trevor, as the expiring paramour and former chanteuse Gaye, that Rocco really meets his match, though it’s initially only by her aggressive courting of attention. Gaye is rendered a pathetic, clingy figure in the first half of the film, peaking when Rocco mocks her reliance on drink by forcing her to reprise one of her old songs off-key with no accompaniment in front of everyone, all of them made impossibly uncomfortable by the cursed transaction, which at any rate turns out to be a swindle. (It falls on McCloud to provide Gaye with the hoped-for drink.) A moment like this, including the domestic quarrel that precedes it with Rocco making disgusted noises about “what you’re like,” goes beyond the traditional dance of good and evil that’s so often associated with film noir, and approaches the sleaze and genuine scumminess that only the most debased (and, often, best) noirs touch, movies like Gun Crazy and Out of the Past, but even those carry with them a sense of fun even at their most lurid moments. The sequence in which Trevor delivers her song, which probably won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, quite frankly makes you feel gross; it’s rare that a Hollywood film of this era makes you feel as if you’re witnessing something you really shouldn’t, but this scene gets there. Later, however, Gaye expertly turns the tables on not just Rocco but us, as her intense final confrontation with him is revealed to have an ulterior motive.
Gaye secretly provides McCloud with Rocco’s gun, just before McCloud is to be whisked off to an uncertain fate; with Rocco’s boat gone after the storm, McCloud is expected to return him and his remaining cronies to Cuba, and everyone is well aware that he is likely to be murdered after he performs his duty. Huston crafts an incredibly nihilistic climax here, focusing on the hopelessness and futility of what ensues back at the hotel (starting with the morbid disappointment that McCloud didn’t run when he could, again probably because he is too paralyzed by fear, fear being something that Huston is more than willing to allow a hero to feel) before proceeding with an ingeniously one-sided final showdown whose conclusion is foregone, and which never requires Bogart to come face to face with his nemesis. This finale is intentionally anticlimactic, good and evil never directly sparring, only hoodwinking one another; and Bogart’s anxious, elated performance throughout the boat scenes is among his greatest moments on film. Undoubtedly at Warner Bros.’ insistence, implicit or otherwise, the film does not end where it should — with a boat full of dead bodies being turned around by its sole survivor, to not much surer a destiny — but falls into a bit of dull over-explaining in which we’re permitted to see Bacall and Barrymore’s joy that their friend will return, probably for a domesticated long-term future, and a ridiculous grin on Bogart’s face as he aims for home.
It all so seems so phony. But then again, you tend to wonder, is it really supposed to be real? There’s something so desperate about it all — a war hero appearing from nowhere like the Man with No Name, coming back and fitting automatically into whatever magic is constructed for him, conforming all too naturally to the bizarre tale that’s generated all around the hotel and the people he stumbles upon. It’s almost as though Huston is suggesting that the real-world evil of a chronic abuser like Rocco, the implications of whom are a recurring topic of discussion in the dialogue, doesn’t actually have a convenient foe forthcoming to stop him. To whatever extent McCloud is a real person, the end of his story has the feel of completely fabricated legend, a story told for someone’s reassurance; the reality is the storm, the fog, the murders. As one character says earlier on: “This ain’t real, what’s happening.” But much of it is — too much, in fact, with no Bogie of any stripe, heroic or anti-heroic, poised to come down from the sky — and of course, noir is never more unsettling than when its smoked-out expressionist universe of dread and doom seems momentarily to intersect with our own.