The Most Beautiful Fraud: Key Largo
Key Largo, as can be sniffed out from its somewhat stagey, cramped qualities, had its origins as a stage play. It bears little resemblance to the original product — a bit of a surprise since Maxwell Anderson was, at the time, an extremely popular playwright and a go-to source for Hollywood — but it still comes across as a movie that had its origins on the hardwood. As a result, like a lot of movies that began in the modern theater, it really ends up relying on the success of its stunt casting. As far as the leads go, there’s not much to complain about; it’s the final pairing of married couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and may be their best-known team-up. If the logistics of the team-up don’t make any sense (leaving aside the age difference between the two, Bacall plays the daughter-in-law of Lionel Barrymore, who was running down his 70th year at the time), the charisma more than makes up for it. The awkward plot mechanics that got in the way of their smoldering back-and-forth in Dark Passage are gone, and if they aren’t as powerfully connected as they were in The Big Sleep, they’re at least on the same level as To Have and Have Not (from which book Key Largo‘s ending was cribbed).
With those two stalwarts holding things down, it’s the supporting performances that can make or break a movie like this, especially when its plot (here, a cynical war vet engages in a battle of wills with an exiled gangster during a hurricane) is a tad shaky. Getting the bad news out of the way first would entail ignoring most of what comes out of Barrymore’s mouth: not only is it overblown moralizing that is completely unnecessary to establish the unsavory character of the film’s villain, but it’s delivered by Barrymore, always an overly theatrical actor, in the manner of a Virginia ham that’s been hooked up to a hot air pump. Even his one killer scene, where he spooks the mobsters with a tale of the massive devastation wrought by the 1935 Matacumbe hurricane, could easily have been handed to someone else to spare audiences his woozy delivery. Every other scene he’s in is either gummy hero-worship of Bogart, phony tough-guy talk to Edward G. Robinson, or general why-won’t-the-lord-take-me hand-wringing that makes you actively wish for his demise.
Happily, though, almost everyone else is hands-down terrific, which no doubt accounts for its justified reputation as ace noir mood piece. Edward G. Robinson, now past his headlining years, has had time to really grow into the role of the sneering, hateful, contemptuous Johnny Rocco. Exiled to Cuba after a federal case, he grinds his teeth in angry disbelief at how he’s been treated: “An undesirable alien! Me! Johnny Rocco! Like I was a dirty red or something!” In his lowest moments, he is called on to be afraid, but they only work because in his highest ones, he seems like a giant confined to a squat little body. He drips with scorn for the two-bit lawmen who threaten him, and his cruelty to his drunken, degraded moll may be the key that unlocks his downfall, but it’s also one of the most stone-cold evil moments in noir history, the act of a man who positively will have everything his way, even if it’s a completely pointless gesture of cruelty. That moll, of course, is played by Claire Trevor, one of the greatest actresses of the genre, and she collected a well-deserved Oscar for her performance as Gaye Dawn. When we first meet her, she’s a friendly, blowsy barfly, the only one of the gang with a kind word for Bogart, happily spouting forth her system for betting on the horses; but we soon learn that, like a lot of alcoholics, she stays drunk all the time because it’s the only way to forget how deeply unhappy she is. Her shattered a capella rendition of “Moanin’ Low” is the nadir of her misery, and though it’s the most famous scene in the movie, it’s also terribly hard to watch, even today, in the era of humiliation as comedy. Character actor Thomas Gomez is enjoyably oily and nasty as one of Rocco’s flunkies, and future Tonto actor Jay Silverheels shows up as one of a pair of outlaw Native American brothers.
John Huston directed Key Largo in a rush, and there are times that it shows, particularly in the still-stagey setups and the restrictions of setting up shots on a hastily assembled soundstage. But he’d long before proven adept at using tight shots to add depth and flavor to his characters, and he does so here; it’s not his best-directed film, but few filmmakers could have done better under the circumstances. His screenplay, which won him a WGA nomination along with collaborator Richard Brooks, usually fumbles where it remains closer to the source material and soars where it departs. There’s some truly memorable lines — Bogart suggesting that Robinson pull his gun on the hurricane has always been a favorite of mine — and while the movie has what at first seems to be a ‘happy’ ending, it’s really more morally complex than it appears. In the play, Bogart’s character is a Spanish Civil War vet, and he dies at the end; here, he’s a WWII major, and he lives. But it doesn’t deliver that alteration in the form of a predictable happy ending. The movie’s Frank McCloud is deeply distrustful of people and fed up with blood from his experiences from the war; he’s a former idealist who’s disgusted by the way the promise of FDR’s New Deal has soured into crime and corruption. He’s repulsed by users like Rocco, but his wartime experiences — which he sugarcoats out of kindness towards Bacall and Barrymore — have poisoned his soul. And when he triumphs over Rocco’s gang, it’s by murdering them one by one. The lesson that violence can defeat evil is reinforced, but it’s that very lesson that turned McCloud into the dead-eyed cynic he was when the movie began. He’s won; he’s once again a hero — to everyone but himself.