Sunday, August 28, 2011

Key Largo (1948) - John Huston

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), a World War II vet, comes to Key Largo to visit the family of one of the men he commanded who was killed in action during the invasion of Italy. The dead soldier's wheelchair-bound father, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), runs a hotel, assisted by his daughter-in-law Nora (Lauren Bacall). It is the height of summer heat and humidity. The hotel is closed, the only guests a shady group of characters claiming to be from Chicago on a fishing trip. McCloud suspects otherwise and soon learns they are gangsters, led by the notorious Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a deportee who has snuck back into the country from Cuba with a suitcase full of counterfeit money that he plans to sell to some old crime partners. McCloud must contend with two threats, a fast-approaching hurricane and the increasingly nervous mobsters.

Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco. 

The final of four parings for Bogart and Bacall (the others being: To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep and Dark Passage), this may be the least satisfying as far as their characters' interaction. Bacall has little to do. The focus here is on the give and take between Bogart and Robinson, which is terrifically charged and exciting. But Key Largo is really Robinson's film, and his portrayal of Johnny Rocco, a mean hood whose tough guy behavior compensates for self-doubt, is great. Reminiscent of his breakthrough role as Rico in Little Caesar 17 years earlier, one can imagine that had Rico lived, he might have turned out as Rocco, his blood lust tempered by experience, but his thirst for being a player never satisfied.

When first introduced he is sitting in a bath, trying to keep cool in front of a vacillating fan. He holds a drink in one hand, a newspaper in the other. A fat cigar hangs from his mouth. Right away you know this ugly little man is dangerous.

Rocco's temperament is all over the place as the story unfolds. Initially he is loud and outwardly confident, a typical bully, humiliating his old girlfriend and threatening the Temples. Later, when the hurricane approaches with all its terrifying force, he cowers in fear, wondering if the roof is about to be torn off. Temple fuels his concern with tales of devastation and death from prior storms. By the end of the film, Rocco shows his true colors in a confrontation with McCloud where his tough guy facade cracks to reveal a coward.

Along the way, a revealing exchange between McCloud and Rocco captures the essence of the gangster's character. He has no great motive to act as he does; he's just mean because he wants to be.

Rocco: There's only one Johnny Rocco.
Temple: How do you account for it?
McCloud: He knows what he wants. Don't you, Rocco?
Rocco: Sure.
Temple: What's that?
McCloud: Tell him, Rocco.
Rocco: Well, I want uh ...
McCloud: He wants more, don't you, Rocco?
Rocco: Yeah. That's it. More. That's right! I want more!
Temple: Will you ever get enough?
McCloud:Will you, Rocco?
Rocco: Well, I never have. No, I guess I won't. You, do you know what you want?
McCloud: Yes, I had hopes once, but I gave them up.
Rocco: Hopes for what?
McCloud: world in which there's no place for Johnny Rocco.

Rocco wants to recapture the glory days, before his deportation. He acts as if he can still rise to the top of the mob. He and his henchman constantly talk bout Prohibition, and what went wrong. It'll come back, they believe, and this time they say, the mob families won't fight. It's a pipe dream, and shows that the man can't change with the times.

The film's best scene has Rocco forcing Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), to sing for a drink. Once lovers, alcoholism has taken its toll on the moll since Rocco fled the country. She now disgusts him and he ignores her for the most part. When she begs for a drink he tells her she must first sing. Trevor's sad rendition of "Moanin' Low" is a big reason she won that year's Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. A cappella and pathetic, Rocco winces as he listens, wondering how he ever found her attractive. He reneges on his promise of a drink saying, "you were rotten."

By 1948 Trevor was well-established as a femme fetale. The previous year she had starred in Born to Kill as a conniving figure about as amoral as Johnny Rocco. And before that, she tried to manipulate Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet. Here, she does a 180, helping the hero by slipping him a gun, but still, you wonder if she'll find happiness afterwards. Hers is a much meatier role than Bacall's and she performs brilliantly.

Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn

In another characteristic scene, Rocco whispers lechery into Nora's ear. You don't hear what he says but it's obviously offensive and suggestive. Nora scratches and spits in his face, the only action involving Bacall in the whole film.

Bogart plays a reluctant hero. McCloud only rises to the occasion when forced to; he'd just as soon see Rocco complete his mission and leave. Still, he can only take so much and knows scum when he sees it. After witnessing Rocco's crude behaviour, he risks needling the gangster: "You don't like it, do you Rocco, the storm? Show it your gun, why don't you? If it doesn't stop, shoot it." When Rocco's boat captain disappears under cover of the storm, Rocco calls on the veteran to steer them back to Cuba.

Bogart as McCloud starts to get under Rocco's skin.

If the film has a failing, it's the end. The final resolution seems less satisfying than one might hope. You assume throughout that Rocco will get his comeuppance, but there is little danger in the last ten minutes. It's too easy for Bogart.

Director John Huston had worked with Bogart three times before, most recently in a film that same year which over-shadowed this one, The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Nominated for Best Film and Best Director, Treasure is more acclaimed, and rightfully so. Still, Key Largo is a fine followup.

For the era, Huston does a good enough job with special effects to mimic a hurricane. Windows shatter, trees are uprooted, and stock footage of real storms show the surge of seawater up the shore.

It's fitting that like fellow actor and gangster alum James Cagney, Robinson would score big later in his career with a return to the genre that started it all, recapturing the menace he first exhibited in Little Caesar in 1931. Depression audiences lapped up the diversionary gangster films, for that same year saw Cagney's first attention-getting role in The Public Enemy. If both men had since mainly moved onto other types of roles, they knew a good role when they saw one; Robinson beating his friend to the punch as Cagney's return to crime came one year later in a tour de force performance in White Heat.

Inexplicably, Robinson never received an Oscar nomination. His performance here seems particularly slighted. A shame, since it turned out to be his last real chance for such recognition.

The Best of Edward G. Robinson:
  • Little Caesar (1931)
  • The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)
  • The Sea Wolf (1941)
  • Double Indemnity (1944)
  • The Woman in the Window (1944)
  • Scarlet Street (1945)
  • The Stranger (1946)
  • Key Largo (1948)
  • The Cincinnati Kid (1965)
  • Soylent Green (1973)

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