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Key Largo (1948)

Reviewed by Tom Ender

Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall star in this excellent film with a supporting cast that includes Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor, all directed by John Huston. The writing credits include Maxwell Anderson, who wrote the play on which this movie is based, with screenplay by Richard Brooks along with John Huston.

Key Largo is a story about courage: what it is, who has it, who doesn’t and what good it is. It is about a man who in the recent past has shown a level of bravery in combat that most would call heroism and his subsequent apparent personal rejection of standard definitions of such behavior.

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is traveling the country after World War Two. He comes to the Florida Keys to visit the family of one of the men he commanded: George Temple, who was killed in the Italian campaign of the European war. Mr. Temple (Lionel Barrymore) is the father of the dead soldier and owns a hotel on Key Largo. Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) is the dead soldier’s widow now living with and caring for her wheelchair-bound father-in-law.

However, the first people Frank McCloud meets at the Largo Hotel aren’t George Temple’s relatives. Instead Frank comes upon a strange bunch supposedly down to the Keys for a fishing trip. Of these people, the first characters introduced are Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role), “Curly” Hoff (Thomas Gomez), “Toots” Bass (Harry Lewis) and Angel Garcia (Dan Seymour), who are all in the hotel bar. Gaye is following a horse race on the radio. Frank makes conversation with her until she is called away and he finds that Mr. Temple is outdoors.

Mr. Temple and Nora are anxious to hear about how George died and where he is buried. Frank fills in the blanks left by the letter from the government. After their talk there is trouble with the group staying for the “fishing trip.” Before long it is clear that story is only a cover for some less savory business, as the leader of that group, Mr. Brown, is exposed as the infamous gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson).

The star of Little Caesar: Edward G. Robinson, is very effective in his portrayal of the Capone-like Johnny Rocco. Bogart is just as effective as the heroic Frank McCloud. Lauren Bacall is as wholesome in the role of Nora as she was slinky as ‘Slim’ in To Have and Have Not (her first movie, also with Bogart). The supporting cast is excellent, as is the very emotional musical score by Max Steiner.

Key Largo may not be on everyone’s short list of great films displaying individualism; however, it is on mine. I have several reasons. Frank McCloud makes very clear that he is not the standard movie hero. He’s had enough of fighting for other people’s concerns. As he puts it “One Rocco more or less isn't worth dying for!” Also, many of Rocco’s speeches show the relationship of organized crime, prohibition and politics. As he tells the deputy he later kills: “I'll be back pulling strings to get guys elected mayor and governor before you get a ten buck raise.”

Perhaps most important in my recommending this movie is one simple fact: Rocco, who is shown in the film to be a true monster, is not stopped by government. It isn’t the feds who deported him who stop him, since he comes back into the country by boat. It isn’t the local sheriff or his deputy who stop him, in fact, they do far more harm than good. What stops Johnny Rocco are the actions of a small group of individuals, primarily one man, acting on his own to save himself and in showing a fine sense of courage wins a life that he wants with other good people.

There are many good Bogart movies. Some, like The Roaring Twenties, also show the evils of prohibition. In Key Largo, Bogart and Bacall both play people who are quite unremarkable in their circumstances. However, along with Barrymore’s Mr. Temple, they show that: courage can defeat corruption,  decency can win the day and a gun in the right private hands can be the best defense against crime and real criminals.

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