By Dirk Sonniksen | May 12, 2009
Director: John Huston
Writer(s): Maxwell Anderson (play), Richard Brooks and John Huston (screenplay)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Claire Trevor, Lionel Barrymore
It begins with Frank McCloud, played by Humphrey Bogart, traveling to, where else, Key Largo, to bring closure to the family of a war buddy killed in WW II. Upon his arrival, he finds his fallen comrade’s widow, Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), and her father-in-law, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), held hostage in their own hotel by the notorious gangster, Johnny Rocco, played by Edward G. Robinson. Rocco takes pleasure in ridiculing Nora and her wheelchair-ridden father-in-law, and spends his idle time taunting his lush of a girlfriend (played by Claire Trevor) with visions of a Scotch on the rocks. McCloud finally has enough of the entire mess, and reluctantly becomes the liberator, facing down Rocco and his gang on a shoot em’ up escapade at sea.
Key Largo is campy fun, plain and simple. I could get in some trouble for that assessment, as many consider the film a classic. And it is a classic—a campy classic. John Huston was a great director, but when you shoot a movie that takes place in the tropics on a lot in Los Angeles in the 40’s, complete with really cliché Seminole Indians, fake palm trees, and monolithic plot holes, you’re not going to get an Oscar nomination.
But wait! Enter Claire Trevor! No one could play a pathetic drunk any better than Claire Trevor, and it earned her a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. For Humphrey Bogart, he would have to wait for his Oscar (Bogart would win Best Actor in 1951 for The African Queen, also directed by Huston).
Bogie and Bacall’s roles in the film are somewhat muted, playing the proverbial punching bags for Johnny Rocco. Along with Lionel Barrymore’s character, they get slapped around plenty. This would also be Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s last film together. Sigh.
Overall, this is Edward G. Robinson’s movie. He dominates the screen as Johnny Rocco, and although I poke fun at aspects of the film, in addition to Trevor, Robinson could have easily walked away with a statue for his role. In fact, he could have taken one home for many of his roles, but such was not the case. That he would receive a paltry posthumous Academy Award in 1973 is a travesty.
What makes Key Largo a great film is casting, and Huston knew how to cast. There’s also a decent script there, but the goofy backdrops, over-abundance of reaction shots, and many, many continuity issues, hurt the film as a whole. But not seeing Key Largo would be a crime. You’d miss Claire Trevor singing “Moanin’ Low” and begging Johnny for that drink. You’d miss Rocco cowering during the hurricane, and Frank McCloud taking him on, saying, “You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t you? If it doesn’t stop, shoot it.” You’d miss a lot, including having a blast picking out those continuity issues. Sorry Continuity Guy, you blew it on this one. Enjoy.