Key Largo (1948):  Bogart & Bacall & Huston

Bogart and Bacall in Key Largo

Key Largo (1948)

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, Huston, and Bacall on the set of Key Largo

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.

Robinson, Bogart, L. Barrymore, Bacall

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.

Key Largo (1948)

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Meyers, Jeffrey.  John Huston:  Courage and Art.  2011.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Double Indemnity (1944): The Crown Jewel of Film Noir

#25 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity.
Double Indemnity (1944) opening

If you’re a baby boomer, when you think of Barbara Stanwyck, you think of The Big Valley, which ran for four seasons in the late sixties.  Stanwyck played Victoria Barkley, the tough matriarch who ruled the Barkley family in the wilds of 1870’s California.

But if you’re a film buff, you think of a cheap blonde wig and an ankle bracelet that seduced Fred MacMurray into murder.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)

You think of Double Indemnity.

Stanwyck plays Phyllis Dietrichson, the fatalist femme in film noir.  

Stanwyck had made her career playing hard-boiled dames with soft centers, and Fred MacMurray was the affable everyman who ceded the spotlight to his female co-stars.  

Neither Stanwyck nor MacMurray had ever played characters as rotten as Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff, the lethal housewife and willing insurance salesman who plot to murder Phyllis’ husband and abscond with the insurance money.

The results are electric.

Walter burns for Phyllis with a combustible mix of lust and greed that ultimately sours to revulsion.

And Phyllis?  She’s one cold fish from wire to wire. 

To satisfy the production code, Walter Neff murders Mr. Dietrichson off-screen.  Instead we see only a close up of Stanwyck as Phyllis.  She doesn’t watch the murder of her husband inches away, but stares straight ahead with a look of almost sexual satisfaction that will make your blood run cold.

Phyllis (Barbara Stanwyck) drives while Walter breaks her husband's neck in Double Indemnity (1944)
Phyllis drives while Walter breaks her husband’s neck

Things go wrong, of course.  Walter’s murder isn’t as perfect as he believes, and he’s dogged by his conscience and a suspicious insurance claims man.  

Phyllis and Walter soon wish to be rid of one another, but the murder between them binds them tighter than lust or money.

Events spiral out of control with consequences lethal to more than just Mr. Dietrichson.

Double Indemnity is number 29 on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 Greatest Movies.  It’s on every list of the greatest film noirs, often in the top spot.

It’s a classic about the rotten core of humanity, and the whole film orbits around Stanwyck’s performance.

And still she didn’t win the Best Actress Oscar.  Once again she competed in a stacked field and lost to Ingrid Bergman for her performance in Gaslight.

Two women at the top of their game—it’s a shame one of them had to lose.

But as we’ll see next week, Stanwyck had one more chance at the golden statuette, and it all begins with a late night phone call.

Double Indemnity (1944) Verdict:  Timeless - Watch It Tonight

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944)

Beer and Blood and Grapefruit

#9 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

James Cagney smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clark's face in The Public Enemy (1931)
Opening Banner for Little Caesar (1930) starring Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  Directed by Mervyn LeRoy.  The Public Enemy (1931) starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Mae Clark.  Directed by William Wellman.

To study old American movies is to study American history, which makes you realize what a winding road we’ve taken from landing the Mayflower to Zooming our way through the 2020 pandemic.

From my modern viewpoint where congress could not agree on the fact that the sky is blue, I find it impossible that two-thirds of congress and the states once agreed to outlaw the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol.  

Welcome to Prohibition.

For thirteen years, from 1920-1933, the country was dry.

Dry on paper, that is.

For on the one hand, the temperance movement was celebrating the elimination of alcohol and all its evil effects, poverty and disease chief among them.

On the other hand, it was the Roaring Twenties, one of the most romanticized periods of American history, where the rich drank champagne while wearing flapper dresses and tuxedos, while the lower class packed into speakeasies for a taste of bathtub gin.

The twenties were a complete contradiction.  That sounds more like the America I know.

Prohibition created a huge vacuum in the supply of alcohol, but the demand remained.  Someone willing to break the law to fulfill that demand stood to make a killing.

Enter the bootlegger.

Al Capone
Al Capone

As Al Capone, the first and most famous bootlegging gangster said, “I give the public what the public wants.”

Hollywood did the same.

Because gangsters were another American contradiction.  At once envied and feared, valorized for their ostentatious wealth and rebellion against an unpopular law and vilified for fighting like animals over territory and leaving the city streets soaked in blood.

Producer Jack Warner was interested in making films about the gritty life of those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.

MGM had their stars, Universal had their monsters, and Warner Brothers had gangsters.

Little Caesar was the first full talking gangster film, the story of the rise and fall of two friends, Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)  

Rico and Joe move to Chicago, where Rico ruthlessly works his way to the top of a gang of organized crime.  As he ascends from enforcing thug to top dog, Rico buys expensive suits, expensive cars, expensive guns.

Edward G. Robinson in  Little Caesar (1930)
Little Caesar…Robinson even looks like Capone

Joe loses his taste for the violence and falls in love.  He wants to make an honest living as a dancer, but learns quickly how difficult it is to quit the mob.

Rico is addicted to money, power, and the thrill of danger.  It gets lonely at the top, and despite the women, money, and booze, Rico grows paranoid and angry.  He must always look over his shoulder and stay one step ahead of the cops and his enemies.

Rico has a moment of redemption when he finds he cannot kill Joe, despite the fact that Joe’s girlfriend intends to spill the mob’s secrets to the police.  

But as the film takes pains to show—mainly to get it past the regional censors—a life of crime doesn’t pay and Rico’s descent is swift and complete.  The cops dismantle his organization, and he ends up living in a homeless shelter, all his fancy clothes and women gone.

Rico dies in the gutter he was once so proud to have crawled out of.

To the dismay of those who wanted cleaner pictures, Little Caesar was a box office hit.

Despite the ending, the film promoted a romanticized view of organized crime.  Children idolized Rico and his fancy lifestyle but quickly forgot the moralizing title cards.

While the censors wrung their hands, Jack Warner ordered up another picture just like it.

The Public Enemy is even better.

The film opens with the protagonist Tom Powers as a young boy.  We see that while he has a decent mother and father, Tom is a bad seed with a predilection for stealing and cruelty.

He purposely trips a girl who’s roller skating and his father takes a strap to him that is obviously well worn from prior whippings.

James Cagney plays the adult Tom Powers as he works his way up the ranks of an organized crime gang that sells bootleg beer.  For the first time in his life, Tom has power and money.

James Cagney standing by a light post in the rain in The Public Enemy (1931)

His upgraded suits, fancy cars, and false charm are just a veneer over the surface of his thin skin.  Violent and insecure, he can’t let even the smallest slights go unavenged.

Tom tries to give a wad of cash to his mother (who is only too happy to believe his lies about where it comes from), but his brother Michael rejects it and accuses Tom of hiding behind a gun.  Insulted, Tom tears the money to pieces and throws it in Michael’s face.

Later, Tom proudly brings a keg of his bootlegged beer to a family dinner.  Michael throws the keg across the room, shouting that Tom is a murderer and the keg is full of “beer and blood.”

With a chilling grin of cruelty, Tom tells his war hero brother, “Your hands ain’t so clean.  You kill and like it.  You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”

He shoots Putty Nose in the back years after Putty Nose left him behind to be caught by the cops on his first job.

And most famously, when his girlfriend gets on his nerves, he smashes a grapefruit in her face.  The look he gives her before he walks away is one of pure contempt.

Gif of James Cagney smashing a grapefruit into Mae Clark's face in The Public Enemy (1931)

(Poor Mae Clark—after a forty year career that spanned into the 1960s and featured dozens of leading roles in the pictures, and even a stint on General Hospital, she will forever be remembered as the girl who took a grapefruit to the face.)

More even than the public enemy, Tom is his own worst enemy.

He has partners not friends, sex not love, greed not mercy, pride not duty.

Tom couldn’t change even if he wanted to, and comes to a bad end when his enemies leave his disfigured body on his mother’s doorstep.

There is a through line that runs from these early Warner Brothers films to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), right up to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Oscar nominated film The Irishman.

As time passes the films get bloodier, alcohol shifts to cocaine, and the f-word litters every page of the script, but at their core, these films are about broken men who find power only in the way of the gun.

Little Caesar Verdict - Film Buffs Only.  The Public Enemy Verdict - Film Buffs Only.

Other Pre-Code Standouts

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James Cagney smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clark's face in The Public Enemy (1931)