Filmsite Movie Review
Key Largo (1948)
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Background

Key Largo (1948) is one of the more entertaining crime-gangster melodramas from Warner Bros. The intelligent, exciting, theatrical, but moody, downbeat crime drama-thriller (and melodramatic film noir) was adapted from Maxwell Anderson's 1939 Broadway stage play by director John Huston and Richard Brooks. The setting of the original play was the mid-1930s (during the Spanish Civil War) that was modified and changed to the post-WWII period. This under-appreciated and semi-obscure film must be examined carefully to decipher its subtexts regarding idealism, heroism, cowardice, disillusionment, and pragmatic and intelligent fortitude against degradation and corruption.

The tension-filled, dialogue-heavy plot and character study (with many wordless reaction close-up shots), was beautifully filmed with Karl Freund's B/W cinematography and supplemented with Max Steiner's bombastic musical score. It somewhat resembled star Humphrey Bogart's earlier film The Petrified Forest (1936) about another hostage situation. Its dark tone also recalled Bogart's first film To Have and Have Not (1942) with Lauren Bacall.

Due to its stage-play origins (where the sets were confined and limited), the film also was concentrated within a claustrophobic Southern Florida hotel overtaken by sleazy mobsters - in the midst of an off-season impending storm - when volatile elements were converged together (runaway fugitive Indians, a beaten-up deputy and suspicious sheriff, and gangsters delayed during a counterfeit money deal with other criminals from Miami). However, except for the opening scene shot in Florida, the entire film was produced on a Warner Bros. set. The footage of the hurricane was taken from stock footage from the Warner Bros. melodrama Night Unto Night (1949) starring Ronald Reagan.

Edward G. Robinson (in a trademark, resurrected role and in his last major appearance as an iconic mobster) starred in this John Huston crime-drama as Prohibition-era mobster Johnny Rocco -- a character modeled on real-life gangsters Charles 'Lucky' Luciano and Al Capone. [Note: Although the typical gangster role in the 30s had been romanticized, by the late 1940s, the gangster protagonist was more often portrayed as a bullying psychopath, as in this film.] The mean-talking and villainous gang boss Johnny Rocco (known mysteriously at first as "Mr. Brown"), was first seen in a dramatic entrance scene in which he was partially obscured as he reclined in a bathtub. The snarling racketeer was sweating profusely in a bathtub while smoking a cigar, consuming an iced drink, and being air-conditioned by the revolving blades of an electric fan nearby.

Illegally entering the US after being deported to Cuba years earlier, Rocco was prepared to flee back there but had been delayed as he awaited a counterfeit money deal with Miami mobsters. He had established temporary headquarters at a small Florida Keys hotel during the humid off-season just before a violent, tropical hurricane was due to strike. He was on-the-run with fellow gang mobsters and his alcoholic lush ex-moll and ex-nightclub singer, Gaye Dawn (Oscar-winning Claire Trevor). The group pretended for awhile that they were a fishing party from Wisconsin. In the film's most memorable scene, inebriated Gaye (whose character was based upon real-life moll Gay Orlova, gangster Lucky Luciano's girlfriend) desperately sang the early 1930s hit song "Moanin' Low" acapella to hopefully earn a drink from Rocco.

At the hotel, the gangsters terrorized and held various residents hostage: Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), a disillusioned, returning war-weary and war-scarred veteran - a drifter who was visiting the newly-widowed Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) and her wheelchair-bound father-in-law, hotel manager James Temple (Lionel Barrymore). Nora's late husband George (and James' son) had died under McCloud's WWII command during the battle of San Pietro in Italy. During a final confrontation on a small fishing boat bound for Cuba, when a wounded McCloud had finally had enough of the escaping gang, he overtook them - he vanquished the gang members and decisively shot Rocco three times before alerting the authorities.

The taglines expressed the prominence of the acclaimed actors clashing with each other in their performances:

  • A CAST AS EXPLOSIVE AS ITS STORY
  • Killer against killer gun to gun - on the hot spot of the Florida Keys!
  • You'll see the performances of your life in the hit of their lives!

Director Huston also collaborated with star Humphrey Bogart in, among other films, The Maltese Falcon (1941), The African Queen (1951) and in the same year The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) shot on location. This was Huston's final film with Warner Bros. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would never star together again on the big screen (this was their fourth and final film), after having previously worked together in three other classic films:

This was also the 5th and final film co-starring Bogart with Edward G. Robinson, following four films where Robinson had previously had top billing:

  • Bullets or Ballots (1936)
  • Kid Galahad (1937)
  • The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)
  • Brother Orchid (1940)

Its budget of $1.763 million was offset by its domestic revenue of approximately $3 million. Claire Trevor's sole Oscar nomination (and win) for the film also brought it Oscar award recognition.

The Story


Opening Title Credits and Prologue:

After the title credits, the Florida Keys was viewed in an aerial sequence, with a scrolling foreward:

"At the southernmost point of the United States are the Florida Keys, a string of small islands held together by a concrete causeway. Largest of these remote coral islands is Key Largo."

The Bus Search For Escaped Indians from Jail:

As a Florida Keys Motor Lines bus bound for Key Largo crossed the causeway bridge, a siren on a Sheriff's black Ford police car sounded and signaled for it to pull over. In the front seat behind the driver, the face of passenger Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogoart) was reflected in the left rear-view mirror. The Palm Grove Sheriff Ben Wade (Monte Blue) spoke to Eddie (Joe P. Smith), the bus driver from the outside window, while his younger partner Deputy Clyde Sawyer (John Rodney) searched the bus for "a couple of Indians broke out of jail. Young bucks in fancy shirts." After the inquiry turned up nothing, the driver turned to McCloud seated behind him and speculated:

Driver: "Those Indians they're lookin' for must be from around here. They always head for home."
McCloud: "Home being Key Largo."

The 'Closed' Hotel Largo in Key Largo:

The bus continued on its trip to Key Largo and pulled up in front of the semi-rundown two-story Largo Hotel - advertising DEEP SEA FISHING. The hotel sign indicated the proprietor was James Temple. McCloud entered with his single bag into the mostly-deserted lobby and rang the front desk bell, noting that there was only one male (a dapper young gentleman wearing spats, wide suspenders, a white tie and fedora hat) reading a newspaper there - later identified as Edward 'Toots' Bass (Harry Lewis). When McCloud inquired about speaking to the owner Mr. Temple, he was told: "He ain't here. Hotel is closed." When McCloud strolled into the adjacent bar to order a beer, where two men and a female customer were listening to a live horse-race radio broadcast, he was again told: "The bar is closed...Hotel's closed. In the summertime, everything's closed." The intoxicated and frustrated female insisted with considerable fury that the beefy bar-tender give him a beer anyway: ("You heard me! Give him a drink!"), and he begrudgingly complied.

While McCloud was seated next to the female at the bar, she bragged about her lucky betting and handicapping-odds strategy with a race card: "How's that for picking 'em? Can I pick 'em or can't I?" A buzzer from one of the upstairs rooms on a panel behind the bar alerted the bartender, later identified as Angel Garcia (Dan Seymour), to respond to a request for room service ("That's him!"). 'Toots,' the man in the hat from the lobby, was handed a drink for delivery, ignoring the female's offer to bring the beer to the hotel guest: ("When he wants you, he'll send for you"). She also urged the bartender to give McCloud a second drink. When she asked his name, he identified himself as Frank McCloud - describing his pedigree as if he were a racehorse: ("McCloud. Frank. By John, out of Helen"). She introduced herself as Miss Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), an unusually happy name for a besotted lush.

'Toots' returned from upstairs to tell Gaye that her presence was requested on the 2nd floor: "You, he wants you," and she excused herself (she staggered over to the stairs while fixing her face-makeup). The man seated at the bar, coarse-talking Richard 'Curly' Hoff (Thomas Gomez), repeated 'Toots' claim that the hotel was permanently closed for the next month: "Look, Mister, if you're thinking of putting up here, the hotel's closed. Won't be open for another month." McCloud learned that the group had received special treatment as "guests - we're here by special arrangement."

James Temple and His Widowed Daughter-in-Law Nora:

After McCloud stated the simple reason for his visit: "I don't plan to stay. I just want to see Mr. Temple," the group of thugs seemed genuinely relieved. McCloud was directed to the boathouse to speak to the hotel's proprietor. Behind the hotel on a wooden pier-wharf, McCloud was warmly greeted by wheelchair-bound James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his sleek, widowed daughter-in-law Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall). She was introduced as "George's wife" - both Major McCloud and George had served together in the same outfit overseas during World War II in the "Italian campaign" - McCloud had been George's commanding officer when he was killed.

McCloud explained how he was only briefly passing through Key West - it was his first visit:

McCloud: "George was right. The Keys are different than anything I've ever seen. And hotter."
Mr. Temple: "Ah, don't look for it to get any cooler before November. The thermometer will go down to about 100. The sand flies and mosquitoes will disappear. It'll be right livable for about three months on the Keys. Except for the tourists."

[Note: Temple's exaggerated assertion was that it would finally get cool by November, by finally dropping down to 100 degrees. Factually, this was extremely incorrect. The average high temperature in Key Largo in November is 83 degrees. The highest recorded temperature in Key Largo was 98° in 1957 and the lowest recorded temperature was a chilly 35° in 1981.]

McCloud admitted that he knew alot about the Keys due to his many conversations with George about his "favorite subject." Mr. Temple explained how in earlier times, George had vainly hunted for gold at the legendary nearby small island of Black Caesar Rock - named after a notorious 19th century pirate who at one time allied himself with Blackbeard: "He used to dig for pirate gold right over there. He never lost hope of finding Blackbeard's own treasure. He must've dug 10,000 holes." Mr. Temple insisted that McCloud spend the night with them to talk further - and offered for him to reside in George's old room.

When Nora walked back to the hotel, the Sheriff and his Deputy came over to her father to ask about the Indians' jailbreak: "Any news of the Osceola brothers?" They asked to look around the property, but Mr. Temple advised that they weren't there: "Maybe they're in the mangrove swamps. Maybe. Or maybe if you want to go wading, you might find them, maybe. But if I was you, I'd save myself the trouble. No doubt they'll give themselves up before morning." Sheriff Sawyer added his own opinion: "Because the longer they stay at-large, the tougher it's gonna be on 'em. Fool Indians. Thirty days to do and they bust out." Temple responded: "Thirty days in jail for an Indian is like 30 years to somebody else." The Sheriff accepted and trusted Temple's word and left without looking around any further, although his Deputy had wished to snoop further. As they departed, Temple told McCloud that the two brothers had grown up with George and were good people who just got drunk and engaged in a bar brawl. He had advised the brothers to give themselves up:

"Those two brothers and my boy George grew up together. There's no harm in them. They just went to Palm Grove and got a little snootful and started to take Florida back for the Indians. Came mighty near succeeding too. I sent word for 'em to come in and give themselves up. Not that I'm supposed to know where they are, you understand."

The Drunken Behavior of 'Lush' Gaye - One of a Group of Five Allegedly on a Fishing Trip From Milwaukee:

Back inside the hotel, as Mr. Temple formally introduced McCloud to the white-hatted lobby reader and the bartender as the veteran commander of his son during the war, screams were heard from Gaye during a commotion upstairs. She was being roughly handled by the third man, 'Curly', and forcefully shoved into a locked room. Temple was told by the glib and boorish 'Curly' the reason for the scuffle - Gaye's uncontrollable drunkenness:

"A case of one too many, that's all, Mr. Temple...She's a lush, the lady. After she bends the elbow a few times, she begins to see things: rats, roaches, snakes, bats, you know. A sock in the kisser is the only thing that'll bring her out of it."

Nora had just prepared McCloud's room for the night, and as she led him there, he asked her about the behavior of the unruly guests, who were there in the off-season at the hottest time of the year. She explained how 'Curly' and Gaye had arrived first - a week earlier, and later, their mostly-unseen leader named "Brown" joined them four days ago, and was residing in Room 11. The so-called "lady-killer" had offered Nora's father-in-law so much money that he could not turn it down, and they would only be there another day:

Nora: "That one, Curly, and the woman showed up first. Dad Temple told them we were closed for the summer, but he offered to rent the whole hotel for a week. It was so much money, Dad couldn't afford to turn it down. Mr. Brown and the others arrived in that big boat four days ago....He's in number 11. Never comes out of his room except at night....He's a lady-killer, or thinks so. Rich, I guess, from the way the others jump when he lifts a finger."
McCloud: "Out of season in this heat. Why would they decide to sit down on Key Largo?"
Nora: "They'll be leaving here tonight or tomorrow."

She then apprehensively asked, out of curiosity, whether the Major was with her husband George when he passed away, and wondered whether he had died in pain. He responded simply: "He never knew what hit him." She added with some relief: "I was afraid he might have suffered."

After Nora went downstairs to her father-in-law's room, 'Curly' entered McCloud's room and introduced himself to McCloud as he stood before his bathroom mirror. A continuously-filmed, impressive sequence began almost imperceptibly as McCloud and 'Curly' left the bathroom, moved through his hotel room into the hallway, and down the stairs to the front lobby. During the long camera movement, 'Curly' apologized for his rude treatment in the bar earlier - he placed all the blame squarely on the blonde lush, invited by Mr. Brown, who had spoiled everything. They had come as a group from Milwaukee for a planned fishing trip:

"I hope you didn't take offense to the way we handled you downstairs. You caught Toots and me at a bad time. We were ready to bite anybody's head off. Especially a certain blonde's. Look, five of us, we come down here for the deep-sea fishing all the way from Milwaukee. More than a year, we'd been planning to come down here and fish our brains out. So what happens? One guy brings a blonde. And after we all swore up and down, no dames! But he's gotta bring her, this guy. Well, if she isn't drunk and crying, she's got a hangover and arguing. One minute she gets sore at you and won't talk to you at all. The next, she's makin' a play for you right in front of the guy! And he gets sore at us, mind you, not her. Everything's spoiled, including our dispositions. It's cost us all this dough, and for what? The world's worst time. Now I ask ya, can you blame us for gettin' rude?"

Meanwhile, Nora received a phone call to alert her to hurricane warnings and storm signals that were being issued for the Keys.

McCloud's Recollections of George's Heroic Last Days in the War:

In the Temple's living quarters on the main floor of the hotel, McCloud offered more details to a sorrowful Nora about George's time as a heroic soldier in Italy before his untimely death, since they had only received a War Department condolence letter with few details - and had been left "in the dark." McCloud gave an eloquent recounting of George's heroic and well-respected performance on the battlefield, and how he often had expressed warm thoughts about his family:

McCloud: "Well, he was a good soldier, Mr. Temple, from start to finish. You'd have been proud of him, like every man in his regiment was. ....And with good reason. It wasn't just a matter of doing his duty. He was always looking for a way to do more, and finding it. George was a born hero, Mr. Temple. He couldn't imagine his death, only dishonor.... It's a wonder he lasted till Cassino."
Nora: "When you believe like George believed, maybe dying isn't very important."
McCloud: "Once outside San Pietro, George and a couple of others established a forward observation post. They got a direct hit, and the others were killed. That left it up to George. For three days and three nights, he stayed awake, directing our fire. Most of that time, I was on the other end of the line. To keep himself awake, he talked into the phone. Talked and talked. Most of his talk was about you two. You'd be surprised how much I know about you both. For instance, inside your wedding ring, Nora, there's an inscription: 'Evermore'...And you, Mr. Temple, do you remember telling George what this hollow is above the upper lip? Before he was born, you said he knew all the secrets of life and death. And then at the moment of his birth, an angel came and put his finger right here and sealed his lips."
Temple: "I remember that. Yup. He couldn't have been more than seven years old when I told him that fairy story. What's it like where he's buried?"
McCloud: "Just crosses on a slope. High up, there's what's left of a church. You can see a river from where George is."

Temple expressed his desire to some day visit George's burial plot with Nora, and then gave his gratitude to McCloud for his service and for describing his son's last days.

Preparations for the Approaching Stormy Hurricane:

When the wind started to blow, Nora began to fasten the outer hotel window shutters, and to secure the boats on the pier with McCloud. As they walked side by side out to the dock's boats to secure them. [Note: Both were wearing identical white shirts to symbolize their bonding and "good-guy" status.] She asked about his visit to the Keys, and he suggested he might want to settle there and try life at sea:

"I like the sea and thought maybe I'd like to make my living on it....Hand on a fishing boat. Life on land's become too complicated for my taste."

Before the war, he was a circulation manager for a newspaper. After returning, he had trouble settling down - he waited tables, drove a taxi, and was a day laborer.

'Curly' met them out by the boathouse on the dock and introduced the fifth member of their fishing party - tall and stone-faced Ralph Feeney (William Haade). As Nora and McCloud talked further while tying up the Temples' boat with two bow lines, he revealed that his "first sweetheart" was a boat. McCloud advised 'Curly' to secure the group's large yacht (within view) away from the reef before the storm.

They noticed Charlie Wenoka and his family from Crawfish Island arriving in small boats, accompanied by an Old Indian Woman, a wizened 108 year-old ancestral matriarch Mama Ochobee (Felipa Gomez), who bummed a cigarette off McCloud. All were seeking shelter as they often did during storms. According to Nora, Charlie was a royal Seminole prince, who now was forced to sell seashells. A third motorboat held the two fugitive Indians: Tom Osceola (Jay Silverheels) and John Osceola (Rodd Redwing), who offered to turn themselves in to the police. They were following Mr. Temple's trusted and befriended advice: ("What Mr. Temple say, we do. Him good friend to Indian"). Nora told them to go to the hotel where her father-in-law would call the Palm Grove authorities.

As they talked further, the amiable Nora told how she had established her strong roots there in Key Largo. She first met George at a USO party, who looked "lonesome" and wanted "company." At the time she admitted she was also lonely and worked at the defense plant:

"Before George, my life hadn't made much sense. I never had much of a home, and I didn't like what I had. George, George gave me roots. When he went overseas, I came down here to stay with his father, and roots took hold. Now I'm-I'm like one of those mangroves."

They returned to the hotel as the wind whipped up and thunder and lightning struck, and it began to rain. Nora and McCloud prepared the hotel further, by closing more window shutters (the downstairs area became very dark) and retrieving oil lamps. In the hotel's bar area, the four shady male members of the fishing party were loitering around: pushy, 'wise-guy', heavy-set drinker Richard 'Curly' Hoff (who kept trying to ingratiate himself with McCloud via drinks), Ralph Feeney, snappy dresser and joke-loving Edward 'Toots' Bass, and Angel Garcia. When Ralph worriedly asked 'Curly' about the hurricane, he was mocked by answers from two of his cohorts:

Curly: "The wind blows so hard, the ocean gets up on its hind legs, and walks right across the land."
Toots: "And singing a song: Rain, rain go away, Little Ralphie wants to play."

The two Osceola brothers escorted Mr. Temple in his wheelchair into the lobby, looking for Sheriff Wade - they noticed a police car parked outside but could not locate the Sheriff. To pass the time, 'Toots' described a joke from the newspaper: "There are two cons in a cell, see? And one con is trying to sell the other one a fountain pen. And he says, 'This pen is guaranteed for life.' What's the matter? Don't you get it? A con. Guaranteed for life." He also giggled about a second silly joke: "Elevator's bustin' through a roof, see? And the elevator boy is saying to a couple of passengers: 'I told you there was no 11th floor.'"

Ralph continued to be worried about the oncoming storm: "I hear that a hurricane blows off roofs, uproots trees, and puts the snatch on people. And they all go flyin' around in the sky together. Is that right?"


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