Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: KEY LARGO (1948)

One expects certain things from Bogart and Bacall: screen melting chemistry, sassy lines, the heady mix of cigarettes and sex appeal. We get these things in spades in pictures like To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), but Key Largo (1948) lacks that scintillating sizzle between its two stars, making the picture something of a disappointment for devoted fans of classic Hollywood's most iconic couple. Still, Key Largo has its charms, particularly for those who appreciate Edward G. Robinson, and the film makes an interesting counterpoint to The Petrified Forest (1936), which had made Humphrey Bogart a star.

When Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) arrives in Key Largo, there's a storm brewing both within and without the hotel he has come to visit. McCloud wants to fulfill a wartime obligation to a dead comrade, but in searching out the soldier's father (Lionel Barrymore) and widow (Lauren Bacall) he finds them facing more trouble than mere grief. It turns out that a group of gangsters has taken up residence in the hotel; their leader is the notorious Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a former big man who plans to be big again, even if he has to leave Key Largo littered with bodies to do it. The arrival of a hurricane only makes matters worse, with the tension building as the gangsters and their hostages ride out the storm.

Bogart and Bacall are both restrained in this film; they don't deliver the tart one-liners and smoldering glances that mark their performances in their other pairings. Partly this is due to their characters: Bogart's McCloud is a man with too much honor to make eyes at his dead friend's wife, and Bacall is too good a wife to forget her fallen hero so easily. A steamy love affair would be unpatriotic at best, given the two characters' situations. As a result, their relationship on the screen plays out more like a cordial friendship than a romance. Director John Huston must have felt that the story required this approach, but still it leaves the viewer somewhat unsatisfied, given the mythic power of the stars' celebrated onscreen chemistry.

The heat and the excitement come from the other couple in Key Largo, Johnny Rocco and his faded flame, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor). They make a nasty, pathetic pair; Rocco is clearly a sadist, and Gaye is just desperate enough to put up with everything that Rocco dishes out. In one particularly memorable scene, Rocco forces the alcoholic Gaye to sing for a drink and then denies her the coveted reward when he finds her performance lacking. Claire Trevor won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role, and she really is the most interesting person in the entire movie, a fuller, more complicated character than either of the more upright protagonists or the utterly loathsome Rocco. The moral ambiguity that defines her character from the beginning of the film evolves into something much more certain by the climax, but she's the only really dynamic character that Key Largo has to offer, and that gives her the viewer's sympathy and attention in a way that neither Bogart nor Bacall can command.

You might appreciate Key Largo more if you start by watching The Petrified Forest, the 1936 picture that proved to be Bogart's breakout role. In the earlier film, Bogart plays the gangster to Leslie Howard's world weary wanderer, while Key Largo has Bogart now in the Howard role to Robinson's thug. There's a kind of full circle vibe at work between the two pictures, with a number of other parallels - like the enclosed spaces in which they occur - helping to put them in dialogue with one another in some interesting ways. In Maxwell Anderson's original stage version of Key Largo, the McCloud character died, but Huston's version bears very little resemblance to the unsuccessful play. Still, there's a sense of fate that hangs over the screen version of McCloud, and one could easily imagine a different ending to the film. Seeing the climax of The Petrified Forest helps to sharpen the viewer's understanding of how Key Largo might have played out instead.

Edward G. Robinson makes a great bad guy, a role he played often during his long career. Johnny Rocco is one of his better performances in the gangster vein; watch the way he whispers lasciviously into Lauren Bacall's ear. If you enjoy Robinson's work, be sure to catch Little Caesar (1931), Double Indemnity (1944), and Scarlet Street (1945). Claire Trevor earned additional Best Supporting Actress nominations for Dead End (1937) and The High and the Mighty (1954), but she also has memorable roles in Stagecoach (1939) and Murder, My Sweet (1944). Try Dark Passage (1947) for more of Bogart and Bacall, or see Bogart by himself in Dead Reckoning (1947) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). John Huston also directed several of Bogart's biggest films, but for contrast try The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.