Key Largo (1948)
Written by Richard Brooks and John Huston
Directed by John Huston
Back during the 1930s & 40s, it was common for a director to have two films out per year. These days that would be a surprising accomplishment, but you were expected to churn out a larger workload at the height of the studio system. John Huston was working under this type of contract at Warner Brothers, so 1948 saw the release of The Treasure of Sierra Madre in January, followed by Key Largo in July. Huston had such an eye for detail & quality he wasn’t going to let one film suffer to make the other better. He’d ensure both movies were fantastic. And that he certainly did.
Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) arrives at the Hotel Largo in Key Largo, Florida, to visit the father and widow of a man he served with in World War II. James (Lionel Barrymore) is the aging father, using a wheelchair, and owns & operates the hotel. His daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall), is dutiful and has no plans to leave his side, ensuring her fallen husband’s father and the family business continue. It’s off-season, but the hotel has guests, all working for Mr. Brown (Edward G. Robinson). The police come around searching for two Seminole brothers who escaped from jail, and a hurricane is roiling off the coast. The tension builds as man & nature collide; Frank is forced to face evil and decide if he is willing to fight for good. Not everyone will make it out of the hotel alive that night.
Key Largo is very obviously a stage play, but Huston doesn’t let that limit the action. We move throughout the hotel and its surrounding grounds, but it is very centered on this one location. He implements his love of noir for the film’s look, with the storm shutters closed and only oil lamps lighting the interiors. I have to say that before this John Huston series, I very unfamiliar with Humphrey Bogart’s work, and I have been pleasantly surprised by every film. In Key Largo, he plays a character very different from Sam Spade or Dobbs in Sierra Madre. McCloud is a quiet man, slow to act, almost doubtful about himself. He seems to carry guilt about George’s death and feels a burden to make sure James & Nora believe their loved one was a great war hero.
Counter that with Mr. Brown, the antagonist of the film, who won’t shut up. His character talks almost constantly, visibly uneasy about McCloud’s quiet. This isn’t a movie that spends a lot of time on physical violence but two opposing wills with very different approaches to conflict. The most interesting turn comes when Nora gets one-up on Brown. He begins to become paranoid about the storm that surrounds the hotel. It makes sense; he is an urban creature placed in a setting he knows little about. In this contrast, we see the film is exploring human civilization versus nature. Brown is an example of the rot Americans had been faced with before the War. He’s a Prohibition gangster, reuniting with old pals, and dreams of returning to that era but with the mobs working together. In some ways, he imagines the seemingly unstoppable corporations that would come, colluding to maintain control of their profit flow. This was a question people were asking in the wake of World War II. What will the post-War world look like? A return to those violent city streets or something new?
I have to commend Huston for doing something that was very out of the ordinary at the time. In both The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo, he cast actual Mexican & Indigenous people to play those parts. This was a time of brown-face in Hollywood, and so no one would have noticed if he had employed white people dressed up in these roles. James has a deal with the local Seminole that they are welcome to hunker down in the hotel when a hurricane comes. When Brown seizes control that night, he locks the Seminole out, which they mistake for James turning his back on them. This misunderstanding leads to the local law hunting down the pair of missing brothers and killing them, Brown making sure the cops think these men were responsible for a law man’s death. Huston never looks down on these people; they are meant to be respected by the white outsiders and accommodated because they have allowed these interlopers’ presence.
Key Largo’s ending was changed from the original play, softened to be more of a happy Hollywood ending. It is still a very well-made film that emphasizes how vital performances were for Huston. There’s a questioning of the value of heroic sacrifice. The story McCloud tells about George ends up having some holes in it, where he embellished George’s actions that day. Brown points out that McCloud is a living war hero and what an oxymoron that is. McCloud’s conflict doesn’t involve Nazis but the specter of a return to a terrifying way of life, the age of the gangster. Brown threatens to rise back up, infecting the country with his brand of crime, dashing away any hopes people might have had to build something better. Huston gives us that neat, tidy ending, but the film presents us with questions that will linger long after.