Key Largo was made on the heels of Treasure of the Sierra Madre and in the shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) Hollywood hearings. HUAC was a committee put together in the United States House of Representatives to investigate organizations and individuals suspected of being communists.
Hollywood was under suspicion for making films during World War II that, in hindsight, could be seen as pro-Soviet propaganda. In fact, some of these films were made at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to help soften American attitudes toward the Soviet Union, as FDR knew that the Soviets would be vital allies in winning the war.
But the war was over, FDR was dead, and the cold war had frozen out the better angels of the committee’s nature. Ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors who refused to answer the committee’s question as to whether or not they were communists were held in contempt of court and spent a year in jail.
John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall (among others) started the Committee for the First Amendment, a group that strongly and publicly opposed HUAC on the grounds that it violated the first amendment. They went to Hollywood to protest the hearings, but were ultimately painted in the press as sympathetic to communists (at best) and Reds themselves (at worst.)
When the bad press threatened to ruin Bogart’s career (he was by far the most prominent and public face on the committee) he backed down and issued a public apology for his role in protesting.
In the wake of the hearings, John Huston wrote Key Largo in an ill-tempered fervor. He refashioned Maxwell Anderson’s play of the same name into a tense film about a man who finds his lost ideals and convictions.
Bogart plays Major Frank McCloud, a man who’s been drifting since the end of World War II. He’s looking for work, but makes a detour to Hotel Largo to visit the father James (Lionel Barrymore) and widow Nora (Lauren Bacall) of a young man who died heroically under his command.
James and Nora run Hotel Largo, and it’s immediately apparent that all is not well. Despite being closed for the blisteringly hot off season, the hotel is filled with a small group of menacing characters who are ostensibly there to fish.
In a role that echoes back to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Frank insists he doesn’t want any trouble. But when a hurricane hits Key Largo and traps the lot of them together, trouble finds him.
Frank immediately recognizes the leader of the group as notorious exiled gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson).
The film crackles with tension, and Robinson is superb as the vicious Rocco. He laughs when the wheelchair bound James is so enraged that he tries to get out of his chair and falls to the ground. He whispers sexual innuendos to Nora so foul that she spits in his face. She’s nearly killed for her disrespect until Frank intervenes.
But Frank is no hero—when Rocco gives him a pistol and challenges him to a duel, Frank begs off. Rocco calls him a coward, and Frank sniffs that killing Rocco isn’t worth dying for.
There were sparks between Frank and Nora early on, but in this moment it’s clear she fears that Rocco is right and Frank is a coward.
It’s not so much courage that Frank lacks, but conviction. Weary of war, he no longer believes in the ideals of his country.
But he has a line of humanity, and Rocco crosses it in the film’s best and most remembered scene. Claire Trevor (in a role that made her a shoo-in to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress) plays Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s girlfriend who has been ravaged by alcohol, time, and life with a vicious killer.
She’s pathetic, a falling-down drunk who can barely get through an hour—much less a day—without a drink.
Rocco’s disgusted by what she’s become and refuses her a drink. Her hands shake and she begs him. Rocco tells her he’ll give her a drink if she sings, as she was once a young and beautiful lounge singer. Obviously embarrassed, Gayle sings for the group. It’s uncomfortable and humiliating as she sings off-key and without accompaniment to the group while a hurricane rages outside.
When it’s over, Rocco refuses to give her a drink because she was so terrible. It’s a move of pure cruelty.
Frank—who would not stick his neck out to rid the world of Rocco, finds his courage and gives Gayle a drink, knowing it may cost him his life. Rocco doesn’t shoot him, but slaps him across the face.
Frank doesn’t react, as he has guns trained on him, but it’s clear that he’s found his sense of right and wrong and that he will prevail over the thugs in the end.
Nearly 75 years later, Key Largo has lost none of its punch.
Huston, Bogart, and Bacall were on a roll.
- Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax. Bogart. 1997.
- Meyers, Jeffrey. John Huston: Courage and Art. 2011.
- Bacall, Lauren. By Myself. 1978.
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