This was Bogey channeling Rick from Casablanca and Edward G. Robinson doing an updated version of Rico from Little Caesar. Both actors are great. Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore—not too shabby casting there—provide good support.
But the storyline is just so-so and too often instead of tension, we feel claustrophobia.
Part of the reason for that, of course, is that Key Largo is based on a play. Most of the action takes place in a hotel lobby during a hurricane. In fact, this is probably the only gangster movie where the weather is a genuine character, just as violent and volatile as Robinson’s Johnny Rocco.
Rocco is a gangster hiding out in Cuba who has slipped into the Florida Keys to make a “delivery” to a mobster from Miami. He holes up at the Largo Hotel with four of his associates while he waits for the meeting.
Frank McCloud (Bogart), a World War II vet, comes to the hotel to pay his respects to the father and the widow of George Temple, a soldier who died under his command in Italy. The father, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), owns the hotel. His daughter-in-law Nora (Lauren Bacall) helps him run it.
The clash between McCloud and Rocco—good versus evil writ large—drives a plot that unfolds in stages.
Rocco and his four henchmen at first claim to be tourists looking for a chance to fish the Keys in the offseason. They eventually drop that façade, pull their guns, and take over the hotel as they wait for the gang from Miami to arrive.
A hurricane complicates the issue. Rocco’s bullying of his girlfriend Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) and James Temple’s attempt to help some local Indians provide secondary storylines that flesh out the characters.
Rocco, despite the hurricane bearing down on the hotel, is nothing if not self-indulgent. The first time we see him, he’s taking a bath with a fan blowing on him and a large cigar jammed into his mouth. And despite the heat and the volatile atmospheric pressure, he gets dressed as if he’s on his way to a nightclub, putting on two-tone shoes, starched white shirt, floral tie, and double-breasted jacket. The tie never is loosened.
McCloud quickly figures out Rocco’s true identity and purpose but shies away from confrontation. Like Rick in Casablanca, he claims that he will risk his life for no man.
“One Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for,” he says, adding, “I fight nobody’s battles but my own.”
He takes a slap in the face from Rocco during one dust-up and turns down a chance to draw on the gangster in another. As it turns out, the gun he was offered had no bullets in it.
“But our hero didn’t know that,” a cackling Rocco says derisively as Nora and her wheelchair-bound father-in-law wrestle with what to make of McCloud, the Army officer George Temple described in his letters home as brave and honorable.
James Temple has no trouble expressing his opinion of the gangster who has taken over his hotel. When Rocco complains about being deported, the old man, from his wheelchair, shouts, “You shouldn’t have been deported. You should have been exterminated.”
Rocco laughs at the old man who falls out of his wheelchair taking a swing at the gangster.
Later a snarling Rocco turns away the group of local Indians seeking shelter at the hotel—as they always do during a hurricane. Two members of the tribe have recently escaped from jail and are being sought by the Sheriff’s Department. This brings the law to the hotel and into Rocco’s orbit.
A deputy sheriff and the two escaped Indians end up dead before McCloud and Rocco finally stop circling each other and have their mano-a-mano. This is after Rocco has sold a satchel of counterfeit bills to the hoods from Miami and has forced McCloud to pilot the boat that will take him and his gang back to Cuba.
McCloud, despite his claim of indifference, proves to be the hero that the late—and never seen—George Temple said he was.
We would expect nothing less from Bogey.
HIT: The interaction between Bogart and Robinson is classic. These are two actors at the top of their games doing what they do best. The Bogey-and-Bacall chemistry adds another spark to what is, at its heart, a run-of-the-mill melodrama.
MISS: After Rocco kills the deputy sheriff, two of his thugs dispose of the body by taking the corpse out to sea in a rowboat in the face of a building hurricane. The body of the deputy is dumped overboard. In fact, the two hapless thugs should have ended up in the drink as well. No way anyone is going out to sea and coming back in a rowboat during a hurricane.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The movie was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, but the storyline was updated by Huston and co-writer Richard Brooks. The play, which ran on Broadway in 1939 and 1940, involved a veteran from the Spanish Civil War confronting a group of Mexican bandits.
BEST LINE: As the hurricane rages and Rocco paces nervously, McCloud tries to get in his head. “You don’t like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don’t ya’? It doesn’t stop, shoot it.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “Mr. Robinson’s performance is an expertly timed and timbered scan of the vulgarity, corruption, and egoism of a criminal man. Mr. Bogart’s enactment of a fellow who blows both hot and cold is also penetrating, largely because it’s on the acid side. . . . But the script . . . was too full of words and highly cross-purposed implications to give the action full chance. Talk—endless talk—about courage and the way the world goes gums it up.”—Bosley Crowther, New York Times
CASTING CALL: Claire Trevor won an Academy Award for best-supporting actress for her portrayal of the over-the-hill nightclub singer and mob moll abused by Rocco. She appeared in more than 60 films in a career that stretched from the 1930s to the 1980s. She was known as the “queen of film noir” in the 1940s because she frequently played the girlfriend or love interest of a bad guy. One of her last films was Kiss Me Goodbye (1982), in which she played Sally Fields’ mother.
REALITY CHECK: The character of Johnny Rocco was shaped by the life stories of two famous gangsters—Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. Like Capone, Rocco was from Chicago and was a major player during the bootlegging era that gave rise to the mob. And as Capone sometimes did, he used the pseudonym “Mr. Brown” when checking into the hotel. Like Luciano, Rocco had been deported and was cooling his heels in Cuba as he tried to maneuver his way back into the United States.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Tom Osceola, one of the two Indian brothers who have escaped from jail and are being sought by the authorities, is played in an uncredited role by Jay Silverheels. Those of us of a certain age will remember Silverheels as Tonto, the loyal and taciturn Indian companion of television’s cowboy legend The Lone Ranger.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: A little too slow and wordy. Once is enough, unless you’re a diehard Bogey and Bacall fan. This was the fourth and final movie the married stars made together. The others were Dark Passage (1947), The Big Sleep (1946) and To Have and Have Not (1944), which included the classic line from Bacall to Bogey: “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and . . . blow.”
BODY COUNT: Eight.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”