Bogart and Bacall. Those two names together personified what it once meant to be a Hollywood couple. The two were the talk of the town both for their great chemistry onscreen and their romance off. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall fell in love on the set of the 1944 Howard Hawks film “To Have and Have Not”. They would go on to make four films together, the final one being 1948’s “Key Largo”.
“Key Largo” was one of Bogie’s six movies to be made under the direction of close friend John Huston. It was also his fifth collaboration with Edward G. Robinson and the first time in their films that Bogart received top billing (although if you look at the placement of their names on the title screen there’s still room for debate). Loosely based on Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play, “Key Largo” took the form of a brilliant crime drama anchored by a great cast and superb performances. It takes elements from other Bogie films such as “The Petrified Forest” and the aforementioned “To Have and Have Not”. But mainly its just great storytelling and watching Bogart and company work is most pleasing.
Bogart plays ex-officer Frank McCloud. After recently leaving the military he heads to Key Largo, Florida and the Hotel Largo. It’s ran by an elderly man named James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), the father of a soldier who died while under Frank’s command, and Nora Temple (Bacall), the soldier’s widow. They welcome Frank with open arms anxious to here about their love one’s service and sacrifice. Frank notices the hotel also has a shady group of secretive customers. They turn out to be wanted gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson) and his gang. Their plan is hidden and their motivations unclear, but soon Frank and the Temples find themselves held captive for the night all while a destructive hurricane passes through.
“Key Largo” builds itself around one great exchange between characters after another. Trapped inside by the threatening weather offers up plenty of great moments. Arguably the best is when Rocco’s alcoholic girlfriend Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) is asked to sing a song from her days as a successful performer. Her reward – one drink. It’s said that Trevor was nervous about the scene but was promised plenty of time to rehearse it by Huston. The director then shocked her by calling on her to perform the scene in front of cast and crew with no rehearsal whatsoever. The raw, nervous, and emotional first take is the fabulous scene we see in the movie. Trevor went on to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and many point to that great scene as a big reason why.
There are numerous other amazing scenes that come to mind. Lionel Barrymore, disabled from arthritis in real life, standing up and taking a swipe at one of the gangsters. Rocco’s fall into fear as the hurricane’s intensity amps up. Rocco giving Frank a gun and an opportunity to rid the world of him but at a price. There are so many of these scenes that pour out of the rich and intelligent screenplay from Richard Brooks.
The film also shines through the lines of Huston’s camera. While not as crafty with his angles and lighting as in his first film “The Maltese Falcon”, Huston still develops some beautiful and dramatic shots through a variety of cool techniques. “Key Largo” was filmed almost entirely on a Los Angeles set but you would never know it. Huston ably creates a strong sense of place and at no point was I doubting the films setting. And the details – from the perspiration brought by the hot and humid pre-hurricane afternoon to the fury of the storm and the damage it brings, Huston uses details to develop the setting yet never overdoes them. The looks and the sounds of the film are simply superb.
“Key Largo” may not be considered one of Humphrey Bogart’s top-tier movies but its such a great classic film. His slick and cool lead performance is effortless and his chemistry with Bacall is undeniable. Her subtle beauty and stunning screen presence are evident and there is no doubting that she made the movie better. This is a really good Bogart and Bacall vehicle but there’s much more to it than that. “Key Largo” is just a great film and another clear example of the strength of the Golden Age of cinema.