REVIEW: “Key Largo”

KEY LARGOPOSTER

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.

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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.

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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.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

5 Phenomenal Directorial Debuts

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Sometimes it takes a director a few movies to really hit their stride. On the other hand sometimes directors knock it out of the park on their first try. This week I’m looking at five phenomenal directorial debuts. Now I have to admit as I was doing research for this list I was really surprised at some of the first efforts of some of the directors I came across. Many were extraordinary, others not so much. But one thing’s for sure, with so many directorial debuts throughout film history this certainly isn’t the definitive list. But after seeing these five directorial debuts, I can boldly say that they’re absolutely phenomenal.

#5 – “THE 400 BLOWS” – Francois Truffaut

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Acclaimed director François Truffaut’s first film is arguably his very best. “The 400 Blows” is a 1959 French drama that was a pillar of the French New Wave movement. It was such a key film in defining a movement that was steering away from the traditional moviemaking of the time. Truffaut not only directed the film but wrote this semi-autobiographical story of a young boy’s hard life growing up in early 1950s Paris. Even with the movie’s sometimes heartbreaking subject matter, “The 400 Blows” is a beautiful film and it’s clearly a deeply personal work from Truffaut. I can’t say enough about this picture and it’s amazing that such an accomplishment could be a director’s first effort.

#4 – “BLOOD SIMPLE” – The Coen Brothers

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While Joel Coen was listed as director and Ethan Coen as producer we now know how the Coen brothers work. “Blood Simple” was the brilliant directorial debut from arguably the best directing team of our time. The Coens also wrote this modern-day film noir that gave us a new way of looking at crime thrillers. We get our first look at several of the reoccurring themes that the brothers would revisit in their following films as well as their own quirky sense of dark humor and unique style. Overall this is a fabulous movie and a great debut for the Coen brothers. It certainly set the table for the many wonderful pictures the Coens have given us since.

#3 – “NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD” – George Romero

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My favorite horror movie of all time is “Night of the Living Dead” from director George Romero. I’ve always been impressed with how the film used a minuscule budget and no-name performers to create such a wonderfully eerie atmosphere around a groundbreaking story. Even more impressive is the fact that this was Romero’s directorial debut. There are so many director’s touches that make this such a classic movie. But it’s really cool that Romero’s first film essentially launched the zombie craze that is still going strong today. “Night of the Living Dead” is a fascinating bit of filmmaking and an incredible first effort from George Romero.

#2 – “CITIZEN KANE” – Orson Welles

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You know it’s an amazing accomplishment when a director’s first film is considered by many to be the greatest movie of all time. Such is the case with Orson Welles and the phenomenal “Citizen Kane”. The movie underwhelmed at the box office but critics adored it and over time both it and Welles’ stellar direction have received well deserved praise. Welles also produced, co-wrote, and starred in the film. “Citizen Kane” had its share of controversy and obstacles while it was being made, but the finished product is an absolute masterpiece and it’s a master class on strong and visionary directing. It’s a true cinema classic.

#1 – “THE MALTESE FALCON” – John Huston

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Being such a huge fan of Humphrey Bogart I knew a lot of cool tidbits about one of his biggest movies “The Maltese Falcon”. Yet one big and well known fact escaped me until a few years ago. This was the directorial debut for the brilliant John Huston. He also wrote the screenplay for this fantastic film noir that remains one of the greatest films of all time. It’s said Huston had envisioned and setup in his mind the entire film frame by frame before he ever started shooting. His intense preperation and incredible detail enabled him to shoot the entire film in order. The result was a seamless and fluid movie filled with great characters and some brilliant camera work. Huston would go on to make several more classic films but his career started here with the search for the “stuff that dreams are made of”.

And there they are, 5 Phenomenal Directorial Debuts. I know there are several that could have made the list. What are you thoughts? Feel free to leave your comments and share your favorites.

REVIEW: “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)

Classic Movie SpotlightMALTESEA good argument could be made that The Maltese Falcon is Humphrey Bogart’s best film. It’s a movie that seems to get better each time I watch it and has earned it’s recognition as a film noir classic. It’s also a film featuring two notable firsts. This was Sydney Greenstreet’s first feature film and it was John Huston’s directorial debut. Huston also wrote the story which is based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel of the same name. It’s said that Huston extensively planned everything in the script, even to the most minute detail. It certainly shows. The movie is smart, well written, and very well made.

Bogart plays Sam Spade, a San Francisco private investigator. He and his partner Miles Archer, played by Jerome Cowan, meet with an attractive new client, Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), who hires them to help find her missing sister.  Archer volunteers to follow her as she meets with Floyd Thursby, an acquaintance of her sister. Later that night Spade receives a call that Archer has been murdered. Spade weaves through a barrage of lies and an assortment of shady characters to find that it all revolves around a priceless statuette of a bird covered in jewels.

Bogart wasn’t Huston’s first choice to play Sam Spade but after George Raft turned down the part Bogie was brought in. This was the beginning of a great friendship between Bogart and Huston that spawned many other wonderful films such as “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The African Queen”, and “Key Largo”. Bogart’s performance is simply brilliant and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Mary Astor gives a strong performance and sets the table for some of Bogart’s best lines in the film. Add Peter Lorre and Greenstreet and you have an incredible cast. Also keep an eye out for a cool cameo from Walter Huston, John Huston’s father.

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The film’s is also helped by some fine cinematography. The movie features some crafty camera work and low-level lighting which adds to the picture’s mood and tone. Cinematographer Arthur Edeson plays around with the angles and camera locations which give the movie a cool, slick look.  It’s such a technically sound and stylish movie and Huston’s accomplishment is really profound considering this was his first picture.

The Maltese Falcon epitomizes what high level filmmaking and cinema storytelling is all about. Bogart’s performance became the model for other film noir detective roles and the supporting cast is nothing short of brilliant. The movie was nominated for three Academy Awards but it’s contribution to filmmaking  can’t be measured by that alone. This is a motion picture classic and it should be considered mandatory viewing for any fan of film. If you haven’t seen The Maltese Falcon, it’s time to.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

5 STARSs

5STAR K&M