Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Key Largo (1948)

Dir. John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore

Summer in the Florida Keys. Off season. The fans in the hotel lobby turn slowly, circulating what little air there is. Men’s shirts stick sweatily to their backs. And there’s a storm coming.

Out here in the coral islets of the Keys there is no reason to visit in summer. It’s a place where it’s hotter in the night than the daytime, hotter when it is raining than when it isn’t. Old Man Temple even admits that there are only three habitable months a year. Yet into this sauna comes the drifter Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart). He is looking for the father and widow of one of the soldiers he commanded during the Italian Campaign, to give them closure. He finds them in Key Largo, at the Largo Hotel run by the wheelchair-bound Temple (Lionel Barrymore – no, not that Lionel Barrymore!) and his daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall). Their pleas, and the arrival of a hurricane, force him to stay longer than planned.

He is not the only visitor to Key Largo however. Sharks swim in these waters. McCloud finds the hotel already has guests. Here for the fishing, they say. But that hardly explains the tension in the air, the pointed glances that pass between the men, the forced bonhomie. As the hurricane closes in and the Temples batten down the storm shutters the mysterious ‘Mr Brown’ the frog-faced Edward G. Robinson) finally makes an appearance. Except his name isn’t Brown. It’s Rocco. Johnny Rocco. Johnny Rocco, the mob kingpin who was finally expelled from the US as an undesirable. And now he’s back from Cuba to re-establish relations. But he has learnt from the mistakes of the past. This time there will not be any inter-gang violence. This time the gangs will work together. And together they will be unstoppable.

And it is this group that find themselves trapped in the hotel while the hurricane rages outside. A cripple, a woman, a  mobster, his four heavies, his drunken moll, and Bogart’s ex-soldier. This is what it comes down to: a moral choice. Is McCloud willing to risk his life in order to stop Rocco? The gangster asks him that flat out, hands him a gun. Just the two of them, point-blank range. Will McCloud pull the trigger with Rocco’s gun aimed straight at his belly? And McCloud’s decision? “One Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for.”

"We're gonna steal all your towels..."
Bogie starts to reconsider his Tripadvisor rating

Only Bogart could pull that off. Bogart the reluctant soldier, sickened by the destruction he has seen during the war. “I had hopes once, but I gave them up”, he says. “Hopes for what?” “A world in which there’s no place for Johnny Rocco.” Temple tries to rationalise off his actions, assumes that McCloud must have known the pistol he was given was not loaded because of its weight. When McCloud tells him that, no, he didn’t know, the viewer can see the hope drain out of Temple’s eyes. If his son’s commanding officer is no hero, how does that reflect on his son? It is up to a local deputy to try to take down Rocco. The deputy’s corpse is dumped out at sea.

Yet, of course, Bogart becomes the hero in the end. He is spurred on by the death of the deputy and two local Seminole Indians and by Rocco’s mistreatment of his devoted and drunken lover Gaye (Claire Trevor, who won an Oscar for her performance as the down-at-heel showgirl). He is spurred on by the realisation that if the Roccos of this world come out on top all the sacrifices of the war were for naught. And he is spurred on by the change in the way that Nora now looks at him. He agrees to sail the mobsters back to Cuba once their business in Florida is finished. Gaye slips him Rocco’s gun, urges him to run while he still can. But instead he gets on the boat with them, determined to save America from their likes.“When your head says one thing and your head says another”, he says, “your head always loses…”

The character of Frank McCloud is a perfect fit for Humphrey Bogart. McCloud is a wise-cracking street-smart survivor who has left idealism behind and learned to look out for number one. But, as in Casablanca, he learns to do the brave and noble thing. It is not explicitly stated that a growing attraction between Frank and Nora is the cause, but there is definitely a magnetism between them. (This could just be because Bogie and Bacall were actually married at this stage however). The morally-compromised reluctant hero is a staple of noir, and this is a classic. Director John Huston is an expert in this field – he even went on to play Noah in Polanski’s Chinatown. It clearly has theatrical origins – the action is confined to the hotel’s lobby for most of the film, heightening the claustrophobia. The details of the action, the names of the characters, and the ending (a shoot out on the boat heading to Cuba) were all changed from Maxwell Anderson’s original play however.

What have I learnt about Florida?
Not to visit in the summer. I’m not sure I could handle the muggy, stultifying heat. Or the risk of hurricanes – Temple tells the story of the 1935 destruction of Matecumbe Key. This was a real disaster that killed hundreds. The Keys have original inhabitants, Seminole Indians, who have a history of being mistreated by the whites. And they are the gateway to Cuba.

Can we go there?
In the film they talk about the quality of the fishing around Key Largo. Largo is now ‘the dive capital of the world’. You can even, like McCloud get to the island by the bus, across US Highway 1 (aka ‘the Overseas Highway’ – memorably seen in True Lies, and License to Kill as well as Key Largo). The bus is stopped in the opening scene on Seven Mile Bridge.

There is no Largo Hotel however; the bulk of the film was shot on the production lot at Warner Bros studios in Burbank, California.

Overall Rating: 3/5

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