Warner Bros. // 1948 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // February 29th, 2000
Three innocent people trapped by a storm -- and a killer.
Adapted from Maxwell Anderson's 1939 play, Key Largo is a crisp, tense drama that explores what people will do (or won't do) when a crisis forces them to make a moral choice.
A chain of islands stretching from Florida towards Cuba, the Florida Keys of the late 1940s were still a lazy backwater invaded by tourists for the few months where the weather was comfortable and the wildlife kept in check. Then, as now, people who are looking to escape their old life, or start anew, head through the Keys on their way to Key West. Such is the journey of Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), who stops off at Key Largo to pay his respects to James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), the father and widow of Frank's best friend, George, who was killed in World War II. In words and actions, Frank makes it plain how the war has left him the shell of the man he used to be. He's tired, so very tired.
When Frank arrives at the hotel owned and operated by the Temples, he is surprised to find that despite the close of tourist season and the impending hurricane season there are a number of mysterious guests. They proclaim the hotel is closed, but seem mighty comfortable themselves. Fading beauty Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) is boozy but sociable, but the other men are ominously taciturn about their intentions. Something is not quite right about them, but it shouldn't matter since Frank doesn't mean to stay long. However, when he finds the Temples and talks to them about his wartime service and how George died in his arms, they prevail upon him to extend his stay and enjoy their grateful hospitality. So it is when the fun begins.
Storm signals are up, and it's not just a hurricane that looms on the horizon. The mystery guests are in fact the henchmen and "girl" of notorious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). He emerges from his seclusion to take control of the hotel and its inhabitants, lording his power over them even as he declares his intention to only detain them a few hours. Ordered deported by the U.S. government, Johnny Rocco decides to re-enter the country on his own terms, trading a bag full of counterfeit money for the real deal with his partner, Ziggy (Marc Lawrence).
James Temple would like to take on Rocco and his men, but age and infirmity prevent him. Frank McCloud could make a stand, but is unwilling to pay the price. "One Johnny Rocco, more or less, isn't worth dying for!" Waiting on his moneyman to show, Rocco passes the time with some casual cruelty towards the desperately alcoholic Gaye Dawn, until the slowly building bluster of the hurricane begins to unnerve the great Johnny Rocco. The fearsome storm slowly fades away, but not until Rocco's escape plan goes awry. The boat he was to leave on has fled the storm, stranding Rocco and his men.
Rocco easily coerces Frank into agreeing to pilot the hotel's boat to Cuba, but when Rocco indirectly causes the deaths of two innocent brothers, even a reluctant hero can stand no more. Pretending to play along, Frank chooses his moment to strike. The resolution is short, sharp, and bloody. A wounded, weary Frank turns the ship around, and heads for a home he never thought he'd find again.
The video transfer is good, considering its age. The film exhibits a fine grain, as well as a decent collection of blips, hairs, and flecks of dirt. Sharpness is average, but of critical importance for a black and white picture, the contrast is up to par. A little money to clean up the print would have been nice, but Warner appears to be counting the beans more than usual of late. As it is, Key Largo is very watchable, even though the video is less than ideal.
As for sound, it's a 1948 mono track. The voices are clear and easily understood, while the occasional dramatic music is as muted and spectrum-centered as you might expect from a sound mix that is over fifty years old. Only your center channel is needed, and not too much of that.
Humphrey Bogart might be the hero, and Lauren Bacall (The Shootist, Murder on the Orient Express, The Big Sleep) his love interest, but this film belongs to Edward G. Robinson (Soylent Green, The Ten Commandments, Double Indemnity). His confident, coiled menace and lust for power is impressive, but no more than his startling descent into fear when the unstoppable fury of the hurricane leaves Rocco helpless and insecure. A most compelling performance, with Lionel Barrymore a close second. Generous to a fault for his friends and family, but with the impotent rage of a chained tiger for his enemies, his James Temple stands at the opposite end of the moral spectrum from Rocco, with the confused and reluctant Frank McCloud in the middle.
Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon) has evident charisma and acting skill. However, his Frank McCloud is so even-tempered and hard to read that to a certain extent we must take his status as war-weary veteran on faith. Lauren Bacall plies her acting craft decently, but never quite makes it past the scripted admiration for Frank McCloud to believable chemistry. Claire Trevor, Rocco's boozy floozy, deserved her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her pathetic yet very human portrayal as a failed singer fighting to retain her self-respect.
As one might expect from its origins, Key Largo comes off very much as a stage play. Aside from the storm, the spark and dramatic fire comes from the collision of strong characters, evident motives, and acting talent. Moving along, slow but steady, the story of Key Largo may sacrifice detail and depth at times, but it makes up for it with mood and tension.
One James Bond trivia note: Rocco's gangster pal, Ziggy, is played by Marc Lawrence, who in the course of a career where gangsters were a specialty, later showed up as an ill-fated hoodlum in The Man With the Golden Gun.
A classic film with some of the greatest actors of the time, and all we get is a lousy trailer? We don't even get a detailed biography and filmography for this collection of first-class actors. Nor does Warner see fit to advertise any of its other classic films by including their trailers here, or to include any helpful content aside from limited production notes.
If you can stand a movie with no special effects, no alluring locations, but plenty of serious acting, then this is a movie you might want to try. Unless you are a classic film buff, I'd advise a rental prior to purchase ($25), because there's little here except for the movie.
Key Largo is acquitted, but Warner is found guilty of excessive indifference to classic cinema, and referred to the Court of Public Opinion for sentencing.
Review content copyright © 2000 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1948
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Production Notes