Key Largo Review
Movies based on stage plays have a key problem - how to remain faithful to the original while also being sufficiently cinematic to be worthwhile as films in their own right. Most of the best adaptations have used a certain amount of opening out while concentrating on a great ensemble cast - Glengarry Glen Ross is a key example of how well this can work. John Huston's Key Largo is also pretty successful, largely because of the cast and the clever writing, but it's not really in the same league as the same director's The Maltese Falcon.
Humphery Bogart plays war veteran Frank McCloud who drifts down to the Florida Keys to meet Nora Temple (Bacall) the widow of an old army buddy. Nora owns a hotel in Key Largo which she runs with her father (Barrymore) and is used to a quiet life, serving local Indians and parties of fishermen. The arrival of McCloud seems set to put some of her wartime ghosts to rest but the peace of the Keys is interrupted by the arrival of the fabled gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson) and his retinue of thugs, hiding from the Feds until they can complete a deal that will keep them in clover for a few years. When Rocco, stuck inside during a hurricane, holds the Temples and McCloud at gunpoint, the violence of the war intrudes on the tanquility of the Florida Keys and only McCloud seems to have the experience to go one on one with the sadistic mobster.
In other words, what we have here is a pressure cooker environment into which Huston has placed two of the greatest Hollywood stars. Humphrey Bogart and Edward G.Robinson first went head to head in 1936 in the underrated Bullets Or Ballots, a battle which Robinson overwhelmingly won, not least in terms of screen time, but the intervening years have changed things slightly. Robinson's star had dimmed slightly - he was still getting good leads but mostly in interesting B-Movies like Delmer Davis's little seen The Red House - and Bogart was still in the ascendant - still to come was his greatest role as Fred C.Dobbs in Huston's brilliant Treasure Of Sierra Madre - so the match is more even than it was in the thirties. Robinson gets the showier role and relishes every moment of it, whether brutally mistreating his girlfriend (the superb Claire Trevor) or attempting to provoke McCloud into violence. Looking like a rampant bull, Robinson is a genuinely unnerving bad guy, his moods swinging in a moment from genial jokiness to sadistic intimidation. Huston turns him into an almost mythical figure as he reminisces that "Nobody was as big as Rocco" and there is a sense that here we are seeing the last days of the great mobsters, now reduced to money laundering and sneaking around hiding from the law. As we here, once things were different; "Who he couldn't corrupt, he terrified. Who he couldn't terrify, he killed". Robinson's Rocco burns with self-righteous indignation about his reduced status but also dreams of a return to the good old days of prohibition. The casting is spot-on here - Robinson was one of the original gangster stars in the excellent Little Caesar. Interestingly, the filmic resonances he is used for here are exactly the same ones that William Wyler used Bogart for in The Desperate Hours.
Bogart is very impressive too, in an unusually passive performance for most of the film. His interplay with Bacall in the first third of the film is wonderfully relaxed and affectionate, for obvious reasons (!), and his presence is always potent in the rest of the film. But he's very memorable as a contrast to Robinson's broad caricature - you might think of the similar confrontation between Bogart and Steiger in The Harder They Fall and perhaps also De Niro and Pacino in Heat, since it's often the underplaying actor who comes off better in the end. Some of the time, he just watches and waits and we await the explosion which inevitably comes. There are some great moments between him and the mobster though and Huston makes the most of the close-ups - cinema's big advantage over the stage. But what you remember most vividly is Bogart's haunted face, suggesting the real cost of the war years once all the parades and bunting have passed by. He wants to believe that his war experiences in Italy have taken the fight out of him, but as he says "Your head says one thing, your whole life says another. Your head always loses." McCloud has no choice but to rejoin the battle for the human race which seemed to go missing somewhere along the way because it is part of what he is, just as violence and intimidation are part of Rocco. You could say that the two men define each other and need each other at this moment of crisis, even though only one of them, and their basic philosophies about life, can win.
The rest of the cast are generally strong in less interesting roles. Lauren Bacall smoulders effectively as Nora and has a great scene where she hits Rocco and is rewarded with a kiss. Lionel Barrymore hams in his usual manner and is an entertaining old timer with one classic moment that he obviously savours. Better, however, is Claire Trevor as a drink-sodden old broad who hangs on to Rocco as the link with her past and her only hope for the future. One interesting aspect of the cast is the appearance of some Native Americans who are treated with an unpatronising dignity that was rare in 1940s Hollywood.
Huston's direction is lean and suspenseful and he brings the film in at a tight 97 minutes. This was knocked off quite quickly by modern standards and was the first of two Bogart films he made in 1948, the other one being Sierra Madre. Every scene is economical and well edited, but the technical masterstroke is Karl Freund's deep-focus camera work which captures nuances of character that would be missed in the theatre. Huston's script, written with Richard Brooks (a director of some note himself), prunes the fat off Maxwell Anderson's woefully talky play and cuts out some of the more obnoxious speechifying that Anderson was so fond of - and which makes his plays just about unreadable today. It's not a classic film in many ways, especially compared to some of Bogart's other work in the forties, which ranks among the best in film history, but it is a very enjoyable one and well worth seeing.
This is a bare bones Warner disc with only a trailer in the way of extra features. However, in technical terms it is pretty good and an improvement on their discs of Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.
The picture quality is surprisingly good and very crisp. There is some print damage and a certain amount of speckling, but there is only a minor amount of grain. Not as much artifacting as in some of the other Bogart discs either. The level of detail is excellent throughout and there is a sharpness that makes the best of the monochrome images. The film is framed at the correct 1.33:1 fullscreen ratio.
The sound is pleasing as well. There is only a Mono soundtrack which replicates the original recording, but it is clean and doesn't have too much hiss unlike the soundtrack for The Big Sleep. Max Steiner's music score benefits from this soundtrack too and sounds rich and full.
The only extra feature is the original theatrical trailer. This is a period piece but not as amusing as some on the other Bogart discs. There are 32 chapter stops and static menus.
Key Largo is a somewhat underrated film, possibly because of the excellence of the films which Bogart appeared in before and after it. But it's thoroughly entertaining and very well acted and manages to say some interesting things about post-war American realities. The disc is nothing very special but the good picture quality makes it reasonable value for money.