Key Largo doesn't take long to find its hard noir core. The classic Bogie-Bacall picture from 1948 stashes the main characters in a rumpled hotel in the Florida Keys and lets the battle between good and evil begin-- played out largely against bric-a-brac walls with a vicious storm imminent offshore. It is claustrophic, with nowhere for the characters to run.
With that cold open, director John Huston, in one of his best but less-ballyhooed films, unleashed a contained clash of ideals that help define America in the late 1940s and maybe today too. In one corner is Frank McCloud, played by a world-weary but tough-hulled Humphrey Bogart, a former Army major in World War II who is not only sick of war but what he has come home to after the fighting has ended. He has come to Key Largo to pay his respects to his late friend George Temple, who died bravely while serving in McCloud's unit.
He naturally meets up with Temple's comely widow, Nora, played with both grace and high temper by Lauren Bacall (Bogie's wife at the time), and Temple's father James, a cranky Lionel Barrymore. But Bogart is the film's main dish served cool, a man who once was willing to die for his country but now is scarred and cynical, as only Bogart can play it.
"When your head says one thing and your whole life says another," he confesses, "your head always loses."
In the other corner is Johnny Rocco, a mobster who ran a crime syndicate during Prohibition before escaping to Cuba. He has landed at the forsaken hotel upon returning and now attempts to make his way back into the high living, gangster life. Like Bogart cast as a weary cynic, there is no better person to play a callous but artificially charming thug than Edward G. Robinson. He is both magnetic and repulsive.
Robinson has brought along his band of toughs, who have taken over the hotel and now keep the Temples and McCloud hostage. The setup is a screenwriter's dream, a script that could write itself, based on an acclaimed Maxwell Anderson play. Bogart and Robinson were equally popular at the time and doubly billed as the leads. They both sting in bitter performances that remain in the bloodstream like the smoky plumes from Robinson's fat cigar.
The movie says a lot about America, both then and now. As a post-war picture, Key Largo brings up questions of how we respond to evil people and events. This was a world that had just successfully fought off Hitler's armies and Japanese bombers and now was looking for stability and calm after a grinding war.
But Huston, who also directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre the same year, had different ideas. With Key Largo, he suggests that evil is never behind us, that it courses through even a peaceful era. How we respond to it is just as important as the bad things that can't help but happen. How much we can take and when we should fight are greater questions than evil itself.
The movie came at a turning point for America. Before entering World War II after Pearl Harbor forced the country's hand, the United States had been isolationists. Americans, starting a move to the evolving suburbs,were able to say that it wasn't our war; it was Europe's problem. Until that no longer was the case, as battleships went up in flames in Hawaii.
In Key Largo, there are no Nazis; there is only evil on a smaller scale. Johnny Rocco is a narcissistic monster, demanding flattery and attention paid to his former infamy. The first shot we get of him, 25 minutes into the movie, shows Robinson preening in a bathtub, stogie in mouth and mirror in hand. While his thugs downstairs threaten the hotel occupants with guns, he tells himself that he is above it all, impervious to the imperfections of the hostage-takers.
But when he does not get his way, or when he wants to prove his dominance, he explodes and does damage. He indirectly causes the death of two Native Americans who are huddling on the dock, having escaped from prison but willing to give themselves up. He has indirectly led to the death of a local sheriff investigating their disappearance from prison but coming to realize that Rocco is a greater public enemy. He has his henchman gun him down. When another sheriff finds the body, he fingers the escaped men, who are killed instantly.
Robinson's character demeans Barrymore's crippled old man, who harangues Rocco and tells him that the incoming storm should carry him off. He embarrasses his abused moll, played by Claire Trevor in a pathos-laden performance that garnered her a Best Supporting Actor statuette. Johnny has the alcoholic former beauty sing a song that is off-key but tells a tale of how a women stays with her man even when she should know better.
But Bogart, who has fought courageously in the war, does not fight back against these injustices at the inn. He isolates himself, even when Robinson challenges him by throwing him a gun (which turns out to be unloaded) and telling Bogart to shoot. Bogart backs down and hands the gun back. Why? He is sick of the violence at home, of organized crime taking over cities and once-decent neighborhoods, of pulling strings to get friendly politicians elected.
But he also knows that killing Rocco won't solve anything. "One Rocco more or less isn't worth dying for!" he says.
But as the mobsters are about to leave the hotel for a trip to run guns and ostensibly get back in the mobster business, Bogart comes out of his shell. It is Barrymore's character who helps rouse him logically and Bacall's character who rouses him in other ways.
McCloud realizes that he has has to take action, reciting a portion of a speech from Franklin D. Roosevelt during the war: "But we aren't making all this sacrifice of human effort and lives to return to the kind of a world we had after the last world war. We're fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills."
Meanwhile, fittingly, a storm is coming to Key Largo, one that could topple the island. James Temple tells the story of how an earlier hurricane washed 500 people to sea. The storm churns on the outside and inside of Bogart's character, who must decide to risk his own life to end Rocco's crime spree.
In many ways, Key Largo fits the pattern of America, both in war and in peacetime. We are also torn between helping others in ways that could benefit humanity or sitting on the sidelines and pursuing ideals closer to home. It is also a story that asks how far one can be pushed to go the limit, especially when that limit has consequences. In peacetime, it can be asked how far one can be pushed when there is racial injustice or a global climate crisis or another cause celebre that garners some attention.
There are many other examples of this in cinema. Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre shows a different side of Bogart, a selfish man driven to keep found riches to himself. How far will others in his search party go to contain him, and when does greed get in the way of doing good? These are questions on Huston's mind.
I recently saw James Sturgis's Bad Day at Black Rock, a modern piece of Western folklore -- for 1955 anyway -- that has Spencer Tracy arriving in a far-off town in the California desert to give a medal to a war hero in his battalion. But evil has taken place there, as Tracy ultimately discovers that the man has been murdered before his arrival purely for the act of being Japanese-American. Tracy must also come to grips with whether to leave this buried past behind or pursue it, even those he is old and has lost the use of his left arm.
A day of reckoning comes to Tracy in the film, as it does to Bogart in Key Largo. But there are consequences -- Bogart's slowness to act may have cost several lives already, and Tracy's decision to fight costs the life of another main character. Choices are never easy, whether we act to benefit ourselves or others. Film tells this tale as well as does life.