Although Key Largo is based on Maxwell Anderson’s play, it is John Huston’s baby all the way. Changing character names, location, and just about everything else, Huston – along with screenwriter Richard Brooks – has reshaped the films source material into a dialogue heavy, multi-character film-noir which the talented filmmaker does oh so well.
As the title indicates, the film is set in Key Largo, a small island amongst the Florida Keys. Humphrey Bogart stars as Frank McCloud, a WWII veteran visiting the family of a now deceased soldier who was under his command. The soldier’s father is Jo Temple, played by a fantastically crabby Lionel Barrymore; his widow is Nora, played by Lauren Bacall in her fourth and final collaboration with her husband, Bogart, and both play there roles very well: Bogart tones it down and delivers a surprisingly reserved turn; as expected, Bacall’s steel eyes and lush looks is the perfect counter to Bogart’s hard demeanour.
The Temple’s own an establishment named – easily enough – Hotel Largo, which has been rented out for the week by exiled gangster Johnny Rocco, played by Edward G. Robinson ,who steals the movie with his permanent grimace, heavy walk and intimidating presence.
Backed by his goons, Rocco places fear in those around him, and to make matters worse he has taken a shining to Nora, and just loves to see her squirm as he whispers vulgar obscenities in her ear. Equally impressive is Claire Trevor in her Oscar wining role as Rocco’s ex-singer / alcoholic mole, who is constantly humiliated by Rocco’s taunts and come downs.
As Rocco and his boys take Frank and the Temple’s hostage, a large hurricane hits the Keys. With no where to run, mind games begin to develop between the hostages and their abductors. This leads to heavy ramifications as innocent people are killed. To enhance the mood, composer Max Steiger contributes with an occasionally pompous yet otherwise solid score. Karl Freund chips in with sharp black and white photography.
The film ends with a thrilling shoot out on a boat headed to Cuba. Surprisingly, the whole sequence had nothing to do with Anderson’s play, yet it works because Huston is at the helm. Makes me wonder why they gave credit to Anderson at all.