Key Largo is a grand affair. Humphrey Bogart versus Edward G. Robinson with Lauren Bacall and Claire Trevor in the wings. Not to mention Lionel Barrymore. The film plays beautifully. Director Huston and co-screenwriter Richard Brooks give Bogart and Bacall some lovely, ever so gentle; Bogart’s a vet, Bacall’s the widow of one of his friends from the service. Huston–with some absolutely gorgeous photography from Karl Freund–shoots their scenes together carefully. Bacall’s always primed, but her enthusiasm is reserved (which ends up being one of the film’s problems).
Robinson’s a gangster hiding out in Barrymore and Bacall’s hotel (Barrymore’s her father-in-law). Trevor’s his moll and he’s got a whole gang of lackeys. Best of the lackeys are Thomas Gomez and Harry Lewis. Gomez gets a bunch of dialogue in the first act, when Robinson’s hiding off-screen, and Lewis is sort of comic relief. He’s still dangerous–more than the other goons–but there’s an aloofness to him.
Bogart’s good, Robinson’s great, Trevor’s amazing, Barrymore’s good, Bacall’s good. Barrymore just gets a Lionel Barrymore role. He’s a wise sage and gets some great scenes where he’s yelling at Robinson, who has to take it because Barrymore’s in a wheelchair. Bacall doesn’t get a lot to do and, oddly enough, neither does Bogart.
Huston and Brooks give Bogart a somewhat unexpected redemptive hero arc, which is already uphill because Bogart’s persona for the character doesn’t match it and–more importantly–they never definitively establish. It’s all based on one tense scene (Key Largo is full of them) and Huston isn’t able to sell the sequence. He gets distracted by his actors and their performances and he concentrates on accentuating those performances, not keeping the movie in check.
Once Robinson shows up and the aforementioned tense scene with the unsold Bogart sequence plays out, Robinson becomes the lead of the picture. Bogart, who opens the film, becomes background. Top-billed Bogart’s subplot doesn’t even take precedence over fifth-billed Trevor’s. Why? Because Trevor’s got an amazing performance to give and Huston enables it at the expense of a more cohesive whole, which is both good and bad. Key Largo could’ve been better, but Trevor couldn’t have been. Like I said, she’s amazing.
And, without malice, she takes the film away from Bacall in the female lead department. Trevor’s so strong, once she and Robinson have their scenes, it feels like Bogart and Bacall are only around to have brought the story to Trevor and Robinson. It’s all an elaborate frame. But it isn’t, of course, because Huston and Brooks don’t try too hard with the script. Key Largo is a thriller, not just because it’s moody and full of intrigue, but because Huston’s going for thrills. He’s exciting the viewer.
He just happens to have some great actors performing these thrill-inducing scenes.
Bacall gets short-changed the most. She has the least character–when, inarguably, she should have the most (she is falling for her dead husband’s commanding officer while she runs her father-in-law’s business). Bogart doesn’t get much either but he does get the expertly done action finale. Great editing from Rudi Fehr.
Key Largo is expertly made, beautifully acted. It’s great entertainment.
Directed by John Huston; screenplay by Richard Brooks and Huston, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Rudi Fehr; music by Max Steiner; produced by Jerry Wald; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Humphrey Bogart (Frank McCloud), Edward G. Robinson (Rocco), Lauren Bacall (Nora), Lionel Barrymore (James Temple), Claire Trevor (Gaye Dawn), Thomas Gomez (Curly), Harry Lewis (Toots), Dan Seymour (Angel), William Haade (Feeney), Monte Blue (Sheriff Ben Wade), John Rodney (Deputy Clyde Sawyer) and Marc Lawrence (Ziggy).
THIS POST IS PART OF THE LAUREN BACALL BLOGATHON HOSTED BY CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.