Hard to believe, isn’t it? Bogie and Bacall are one of the most famous couples — perhaps the most famous couple — in Hollywood history. And yet, their onscreen work together boils down to just four films made over the course of five years: To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), Dark Passage (1947), and Key Largo.
Key Largo is very loosely based on the 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson. I often don’t like films adapted from plays. The dialogue and the way the characters enter and re-enter the action usually feels very strange. But Key Largo never feels “stagey,” and confining the action to a single location only heightens the tension between the characters.
The film opens with beautiful footage of the Florida Keys. By opening with establishing shots of the steamy, summertime Keys, by the time the action is confined to a hotel while a hurricane rages outside, nothing about Key Largo feels stagey or stilted. The viewer is right in the middle of the action, and the suspense grows as the film goes on.
Summertime is the off season in the Florida Keys, when the mercury never dips below 100 degrees, and all the hotels are closed. Bogart plays Frank McCloud, a veteran of World War II who is in Key Largo to visit James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), a wheelchair-bound man whose son George was killed in the war. (McCloud was George Temple’s commanding officer.) Temple runs a hotel in Key Largo with George’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall).
When Bogart sits down at the bar in the Largo Hotel, he laconically introduces himself to the boozy moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) as “McCloud. Frank. By John, out of Ellen.”
Gaye is not the only oddball occupant of the Largo Hotel. There are also a trio of men — Curly (Thomas Gomez), Angel (Dan Seymour), and Toots (Harry Lewis) — and with names like those, it’s clear that their story about coming down to the Keys from Milwaukee to do a little fishing isn’t on the up-and-up.
The full terror of the situation becomes apparent when we catch our first glimpse of gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), sitting in a bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms of the hotel, chewing a cigar and exuding menace.
Robinson is a great actor, and Johnny Rocco is one of his most memorable creations. Rocco craves power and money, and there will never be enough power and money to satisfy him. He delights in toying with his hostages, taunting them with their helplessness. He even goes so far as to give one of them a pistol, daring them to kill him. But his bullying takes all forms. One of the most harrowing scenes in the film is when he humiliates Gaye by forcing her to sing for everyone before he’ll give her another drink. And like most bullies, Johnny Rocco is a coward at heart. As the hurricane builds in ferocity outside the hotel, so does his fear.
Key Largo was John Huston’s second film to be released in 1948. (The first was another collaboration with Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Key Largo is a masterfully directed film. The actors are all at the top of their game (Claire Trevor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role). The film’s music, by Max Steiner, is perfect; full of tension and menace, and — when the scene calls for it — a crushing sense of inevitability. Rudi Fehr’s editing accentuates the tension, and Karl Freund’s cinematography is beautiful.