Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 9, 2016)
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall starred together in just four films, and those covered a mere four years. They started with 1944’s To Have and Have Not and finished with 1948’s Key Largo - in between, they made 1946’s The Big Sleep and 1947’s Dark Passage.
That’s a pretty good run, and Key Largo caps it well. World War II veteran Frank McCloud (Bogart) travels to the Florida Keys to visit the family of George Temple, a friend and fellow soldier who died during the conflict. George’s widow Nora Temple (Bacall) and his disabled father James (Lionel Barrymore) run a hotel there, and they give Frank a warm reception.
Unbeknownst to Frank, gangsters led by Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) have taken over the hotel. They planned to leave but they stick around to wait out a hurricane. This leads to a tense situation in which McCloud and the Temples need to deal with the threat from these criminals.
Though I highlighted the Bogart/Bacall pairing, I could’ve focused on other high-powered connections instead. Largo acted as the fourth of six times that Bogart starred in a project directed by John Huston, and it also delivered the fifth – and final – time that Bogart would work with Robinson.
That’s a whole lot of classic Hollywood talent involved with Largo, and they bring out the best in the project. Based on a stage play, the film occasionally feels a bit “set-bound”, as it rarely leaves a restricted array of locations, and one can feel the impact of its origins.
That said, Huston still manages to make Largo “feel like a movie” and not just a filmed play. That comes mainly via stylistic choices and interplay. Huston gives the material a dynamic that allows it to transcend the potentially stifling nature of the source.
That excellent cast helps as well. Indeed, the actors do more to create electricity than anything else, with an emphasis on Bogart and Robinson. Bogart gets an unusually complicated lead, as Frank shows ambivalence when it comes to his place. Rather than act as a simplistic “hero”, he demonstrates a mix of attitudes that allow him to appear more complex – and interesting – than otherwise might be the case.
Fewer dramatic shadings come with Robinson’s turn as Rocco, but I don’t mind, as he digs into the character with gusto. If Rocco feels a lot like Little Caesar’s Rico, I doubt that’s a coincidence. Rico dies at the end of the earlier movie, so Rocco leaves us to envision what “Little Caesar” would’ve been like if he’d lived. Robinson chews scenery but does so in a delightful way that conveys the character’s darkness and menace.
Of the females, Claire Trevor gets good moments as the drunken former nightclub entertainer who latches onto Rocco. Trevor won an Oscar for her performance – I’m not sure that’s totally justified, as she seems a little too broad for me, but she does manage to add some depth to a potentially thin part.
Bacall probably gets the shortest straw here, as she doesn’t receive much room to shine. Nora offers a fairly thankless role who exists more as a concept than as a person. Bacall doesn’t do much here, but I can’t blame her for the script’s shortcomings.
My complaints about Largo remain minor anyway, as the movie works too well for its occasional flaws to harm it. Mostly taut and dramatic, the film sparkles much of the time.