KEY LARGO reels in the big fish like a Marlin trophy excursion back in the days before the Gulf of Mexico was poisoned. The storm-churned waters may have been cleaner when this classic suspenser was crafted in 1948, but judging by the dark tone of the piece and its harsh characters it seems obvious that even then the most dangerous critters were those on two feet. Make that Marlin quest a shark hunt.
“There’s only one Johnny Rocco.”
Ex-Army officer ‘Frank McCloud’ (Humphrey Bogart) pays a memorial stop to the family of a fallen pal, at their hotel in the Florida Keys. Widow ‘Nora Temple’ (Lauren Bacall) and her crippled father-in-law (Lionel Barrymore) are touched by McCloud’s visit, but they’re not thrilled by their other drop-in guests, notorious hoodlum ‘Johnny Rocco’ (Edward G. Robinson), his abused alcoholic moll ‘Gaye Dawn’ (Claire Trevor) and a menacing quartet of Rocco’s underlings. A hurricane blows in. How, when and where do you draw the line on a stacked deck? And for what?
Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 Broadway play, done in blank verse, had a deserter from the Spanish Civil War locked in a redemptive death struggle with bandits on the limestone Floridian islet. For their 100-minute adaptation, director John Huston and screenwriter Richard Brooks moved the plot up to the ennui of post-WW2, changed the names, dropped the obtuse verse for excellent back & forth dialog battles, and added the Gaye Dawn character, based off real-life Gay Orlova, loyal girlfriend of gangster Lucky Luciano. Robinson’s Rocco had shades of Al Capone, and basically updated his signature ‘Rico’ from Little Caesar; megalomania laced with sarcasm and sadism. On the surface a surefire hostage flick with some satisfying thug-ventilating as a release from claustrophobic tension, underneath it was a backhand slap at the seemingly triumphant Red-baiting that was sweeping Hollywood, the scourge of Blacklisting on the horizon. *
Powerhouse acting, with Huston and cinematographer Karl Freund framing their stars in fluid movements and telling close-ups. Only a few opening shots were done on location, the rest on studio sets, Warner’s dependable sound effects technicians making those wind howls add to the caustic atmosphere emitting from the criminals.
Bacall finally received recognition for her acting rather than her looks. The revered Barrymore kept his doting castmates entertained during the shoot. Robinson and Bogart’s 5th team-up sees them in top form: Bogart’s cynicism dialed down a notch into wariness and weariness, and Robinson’s bathtub intro having Huston remarking that “He looked like a crustacean with its shell off”. Trevor had 44 pictures under her belt, and pretty much stole this one with her stellar work as the pathetic moll. Her unpleasant but riveting scene where she’s baited into singing a tune she can barely manage ensured that she collected an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Two of the gunsels backing up Johnny Rocco’s reign are Thomas Gomez, who at 43 was coming into his own as an in-demand character actor, and 28-year old Harry Lewis, memorably nasty as the dapper and deadly ‘Toots’. **
Produced for $1,763,000, it grossed $8,700,000, placing 16th among the ’48 array. With John Rodney, Marc Lawrence (as ‘Ziggy’), Dan Seymour, Monte Blue, William Haade, Rodd Redwing and Jay Silverheels.
* Huston was seething in anger over the recent debacle with the “Hollywood 10”, the studio bosses craven caving to right-wing pressure and the failure of a counter-punch trip to D.C. by a stellar group of liberal actors, including his pal Bogie. Jeopardy was in bloom. A small sample of the oppressive political atmosphere was his dueling with the studio over having Bogart’s war-disillusioned hero quote FDR! “But we aren’t making all this sacrifice of human effort and lives to return to the kind of a world we had after the last world war. We’re fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.”
** Claire Trevor on Harry Lewis: “…was one of those actors who would have given his soul to become a good actor. John scared a good performance out of him. But after that he couldn’t get work. So he opened a little hamburger stand on Sunset. And he married a girl who was very prudent. They worked very hard, it became a restaurant, and you know what it is now? Hamburger Hamlet!” In 1987 Lewis sold his chain of 24 Hamlet’s for $33,000,000, a “strictly legit” score Johnny Rocco would kill for.