Today marks the 68th anniverary of Key Largo‘s release in 1948. In celebration, we are revisiting our fond thoughts on the film as a definitive post-war marriage of noirish nihilism and tough guy patriotism. This article originally ran on Aug. 18, 2014, the week of Lauren Bacall’s passing.
Last week, we lost two screen legends in the span of 24 hours. Den of Geek has written extensively on the one that touched the heart of nearly every child for the last 35 years, but the other loss was equally profound: Lauren Bacall, one of the last great movie stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age, passed away just a month shy of her 90th birthday.
Often described as simply “the voice,” this is the woman who possessed that confidence-annihilating siren call; a quintessential femme fatale who somehow never proved fatal. But how could she when her earliest films always had her squaring off against Humphrey Bogart? He was too much an equal for the dame-est dame who ever lived to be lured to a cataclysmic end. Much like their legendary off-screen romance, Bogie spent three consecutive noir films matching wits with the much younger Bacall and never once seemed her senior or superior. But on the flipside, he was never her patsy either, and each film bucked the odds of a noir hero’s chances for survival when confronted by cool blonde hair (and make no mistake, Bacall was as cool as they came).
Yet, as great as their two collaborations with Howard Hawks are, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), I found myself again drawn to their fourth, final, and most underrated shared project, John Huston’s Key Largo (1948). Indeed, while the movie is fondly remembered as a Bogie and Bacall sizzler in the world of booze, broads, and bullets, it is the one “noir” film that they did which is not truly noir.
It is definitely a crime picture filled with gangsters, including Edward G. Robinson’s best take on a wiseguy in the part of Johnny Rocco, but with its coherent plotting and lack of sexual innuendo between Bogie and a surprisingly softer Bacall, it sometimes flies under the radar with fans looking for the quintessential post-war noirs. This is partly because Key Largo finds a way, in spite of its hallmark genre era patented cynicism, to be the ultimate cinematic affirmation of the worldview that sprang up for the Greatest Generation following the Second World War. In many ways, Key Largo is the definitive post-war film.
While noir is a sometimes nebulous term coined by French critic Nino Frank that was retroactively applied to post-war American crime movies that verged on the nihilistic (produced roughly between 1945 and 1959), the film Frank had in mind when he invented the term was a picture produced before America’s official involvement in World War II: John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941). And while film historians would eventually peg the more obscure Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) as the birth of the movement, it was Huston who in cinematic terms identified many of its trademarks, including Bogart’s star-making turn as the paterfamilias of world-weary gumshoes and Mary Astor as the big screen’s first fatale. Its bitterly downbeat ending became the stuff filmmaker dreams are made of, so Huston knew clearly what the expectations would be for the “criminal melodrama” afterward. Nonetheless when he landed the job of helming the new Bogie and Bacall picture for Warner Bros., in the same year he also made with Bogie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre no less, he inverted what had become the prevailing cinematic language of crime movies made as the war wound down.
Increasingly, an unavoidable misanthropy and cynicism about the post-industrialized world had seized American society. Whether it was in the automations of an insurance office or at a newfangled supermarket, the modern world GIs came home to in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) was a perpetually rain-sodden dystopia of soul crushing efficiency. It would eventually become so unbearable that we would all be better off if a nuke went off, or as at least prescribed by the Mickey Spillane-based Kiss Me Deadly (1955). But Key Largo had none of that. Rather than a movie centered on the pointlessness of it all, Key Largo found in the coolest anti-heroes of noir a way to articulate without a trace of irony the overwhelming sentiments that a generation would ultimately view as hard-won after the Depression and World War II.
As a day in the life of post-war ex-Major Frank McCloud (Bogart), Key Largo opens on the disillusioned war hero visiting the family of a favorite soldier who died under his command. Thanks to the oft-mentioned George’s sacrifice, Frank comes into the orbit of hotel owner James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and the too-young-to-be-a-widow Nora Temple (Bacall). They operate the Florida Keys’ largest and most respected hotel, which is still of course a frumpy pit stop on the way to Key West. Nora may have only known George long enough for a whirlwind elopement, letting her immediate and obvious attraction to Bogie play authentically, but both Temples are tragedy-hardened testimonials to the enormously justified sacrifice of all the enlisted men in Europe and the Pacific.
But Bogart, fitting easily into his dual roles of noirish malcontent and the post-Casablanca fluctuating isolationist, is far less convinced about the worth of such deadly sacrifices. This pessimism is viscerally tested not by the Nazis or Vichy sympathizers, but by a threat far more ubiquitous in melodramas of the 1930s, which had come back with a (tommy gun) vengeance following V-J Day: the gangster. In my personal favorite Edward G. Robinson performance, Johnny Rocco is the myth surrounding Lucky Luciano crossed with the thin-skinned vanity of the biblical King Herod. All boisterous pride and eruptive amounts of inadequacy perpetually prepared to explode, Rocco was once on top, see, in the U.S. when he ruled over Prohibition-era gangland like a Roman Emperor. And then the American government threw him out in 1940 like a no-good dirty rat. But Rocco has returned via a steamboat from Cuba, and he is planning to build a National Crime Syndicate like his real-life counterpart, which wasn’t actually dismantled until decades later.
Everything you need to know about Rocco is in his introductory shot, which Huston withheld until the 25-minute mark. Despite having all the power of build-up and having been mentioned as the heavy who snaps his fingers to make all the other onscreen underlings dance, there is an inherent vulnerability to Rocco: pictured as a man of unscrupulous power, Huston’s camera dollies in to meet him with a cigar in his hand and a glass of hooch within his reach—but he’s also in a bathtub, exposed, and being cooled by an electronic fan like a modern day parody of Nero meets Boss Tweed. He is all power, and he’s terrified of losing it.
It is this vile, foreign menace that provokes Frank’s own withheld cynicism to bubble to the surface. This is the kind of threat that he went overseas and stuck his neck out to defeat, and here it is again, personified by a Luciano doppelganger who really did return to his criminal empire (if only as far as an HQ in Havana). When Rocco asks why he went to war, Frank all but shrugs when he says no good reason. “I believed some words…and they went like this: ‘We are not making all this sacrifice of human effort and human lives to return to the kind of world we had after the last world war. We’re fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.’”
The quote of course goes over Rocco’s head, but the words, which Papa Temple recognizes, are from the heart of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1942 State of the Union…delivered less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the difference between how Frank and James Temple react to them is stark. Despite winning WWII, Frank has all but conceded the ideology behind that war as a lost cause, wasted on too many of the dead friends like George. But the departed hero’s father holds them dearly as he mocks Rocco when Frank will not.
Frank and noir nihilism are confronted head-on when Rocco tosses the ex-major a pistol, offering Frank the opportunity to kill Rocco at the forfeit of his own life, for surely Rocco’s goons would immediately cut Frank down. Nora attempts to thwart the confrontation, but Frank pushes her away so that his anguish can have no excuses. He takes Rocco’s gun and then surrenders it—moments before a fellow hostaged young cop grabs the firearm, pulling the trigger, only to find out it was empty all along (Rocco gleefully executes the rookie).
Before this confrontation, Frank had spurred it on by saying, “I had hopes once but I gave them up….[They were for] a world in which there is no place for Johnny Rocco.” Yet, after choosing not to sacrifice his life to gun down Rocco in the hotel, Frank admits that he was ignorant to the gun being unloaded. He refused to pull the trigger because “one Rocco more or less isn’t worth dying for.”
In typical noir fashion, it isn’t the hero’s own desires that shake him out of apathy or inaction, but those of a woman (or two). As with most conventions, there are dual feminine influences on Frank, but in this case neither is a fatale and neither is wrong. In one of the film’s highlights, Claire Trevor plays a washed up nightclub singer that used to be Rocco’s mistress, but now belongs exclusively to the bottom of a bottle; she is forced to sing on-the-spot by Rocco without instrumentation the song “Moanin’ Low.” Huston sprang the scene on actress Trevor who thought she’d have time to rehearse or lip-synch the scene before it was shot in one afternoon, but the rawness is overbearing, as is its anxious mediocrity. It eventually netted Trevor an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Rocco did this solely to humiliate an ex-flame, but Frank sees this as the last straw, and pours the disgraced alcoholic a stiff one.
For its supposed genre, this action should have led to Frank’s death, and the temptress who facilitated it should have been Bacall, not Trevor. After all, Bacall sauntered into silver screen history when, at only 19-years-old, she showed up at Bogie’s door and purred “you got a match?” in To Have and Have Not. Bacall was discovered for that 1944 film by director Howard Hawks’ wife, Nancy “Slim” Keith. And if it isn’t telling enough that Bogie nicknamed Bacall’s Have Not character “Slim” in that picture, apparently everything from the canter of her delivery to the style of dresses Bacall wore were modeled as a fantasy version of Hawks’ wife.
She was the dame to kill for, and Bogie more or less did that. Having only known her character for a day in Have Not, by the end of a long evening of misadventures and unfulfilled foreplay, Bacall’s Slim Browning had Bogie’s Steve Morgan wrapped about her finger when she uttered the immortal, “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Hawks apparently coached the teenaged Bacall on lowering her voice and how to smolder before every scene on the set, and she upped the stakes of that fatalistic come-hither attraction in Hawks’ The Big Sleep when she knowingly ensnares Bogie’s Marlowe into a world of intrigue and danger.
Key Largo is a complete rejection of that sultry image. If there is a fatale who could have set Bogie up to die, it was Trevor’s Gaye Dawn boozer. But all Bogie’s Frank can feel for her is pity. His potential romance is with a far more quiet and collected Bacall, whose Nora dotes on her loudmouthed father-in-law. Like previous Bogie and Bacall pictures, she pushes Frank, but not out of self-interest or cynicism, but through altruistic motives to do the right thing.
There is a fire to Nora Temple, which even Rocco sees when she slaps him for abusing her father-in-law. After she scratches his face, he smiles and gives her a kiss. “Wild Cat” is what he calls her. Perhaps it should have been “Hell Cat,” because it is to Hell that she is positioning to send him. Once Frank finds his courage for Gaye, Nora cements the reluctant role of noble superpower onto Frank. “Your head says one thing, but your whole life says another.” Even if it costs him his existence, Frank needs to stop Johnny Rocco.
This quiet fire is the point of the movie. It’s not a derisive shrug to American life, but a full-throated clarion call to combat the Johnny Roccos of the world. Or the Lucky Lucianos. And for that matter the North Koreans and (eventually) the Viet Cong, too. Key Largo believes that there are some forces too evil in this world and too dangerous to let be. These are forces that can only be stopped with more force, and unlike previous Bogie-sounded cavalry charges in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, this is one of preemption that must be dealt with, even if it is in remission on a foreign shore.
At the end of Key Largo, a hurricane has thwarted Johnny Rocco’s plans to reemerge in American life for the immediacy, but he’ll be back after another short stint in Cuba. Thus, he will have Frank pilot a boat for him all the way to Havana.
Following a pep talk from an equally resigned Nora—remembering all too well the costs of ignoring the advances of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito—Frank boards the boat with a gun smuggled to him by Gaye. He’s not going toward his death but to his manifest destiny as the savior of American values from a mad, mad world. Through a bit of maritime ingenuity and newfound courage, Frank bumps off all of Rocco’s goons one-by-one before more or less executing Rocco himself. For his troubles, Frank is shot in the side.
In traditional noir, this would be the end of the hero. Even in terms of pure melodrama, Key Largo is loosely based on a 1939 Maxwell Anderson play set during the Spanish Civil War in which the protagonist dies fighting off Mexican bandits. When updated for the post-war era, it is just as easy to see a transition from a hopeful sunrise-basking Nora to that fog-drenched boat floating at sea with a dead, if triumphant, Frank McCloud at the helm. Instead, Frank is very much alive, piloting the Santana (the name of Bogart’s real-life boat) all the way back to Key Largo and Nora’s open arms.
It is a Hollywood ending if there ever was one, but not necessarily for the same reasons as most changes. There are many great post-war films in the 1940s that celebrate American life, such as the 1946 Frank Capra effort It’s A Wonderful Life (which also featured Barrymore as the antithesis of James Temple). There are also many classics that mourn the sacrifice of those who went to war and those they left behind, as seen with The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). But few expressed with more clarity beyond the past and present, and looked into the future of how America must soldier on after the war that was supposed to end wars. There is a cynicism inherent with 1940s crime/noir pictures running throughout Key Largo. After all that death how could the Johnny Roccos of the world still exist? But for better or worse, Key Largo answers how America should and will be ready for them in the future.
Throughout the movie, Hollywood’s own musical auteur, Max Steiner (King Kong, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, 200-plus more) gives Frank and Nora’s reaffirming romance a hint of the nostalgic and the wistful. These are two people who have seen too much, even if one of them is only 23-years-old. They have seen war, suffering, and evil in their lifetimes. But the music is neither downbeat nor sad; it’s bittersweet in its dogged optimism that these two kids will be all right; they will persevere. And the fact that a wiseguy like Bogie and a dame like Bacall could be so unapologetically American is the underhanded triumph of a “melodrama” like Key Largo, and yet another testament to both actors’ talent and everlasting stature.
Lauren Bacall was married twice in her lifetime. The first time was when she was 20-years-old and Bogart was 45. After his death 12 years later, she eventually married actor Jason Robards Jr. for eight years in the 1960s. Upon her difficulty in ever remarrying, Bacall remarked decades later in an interview, “A woman isn’t complete without a man. But where do you find a man—a real man—these days?”
It’s equally hard to imagine we’ll ever see a woman like Bacall again either.