Key Largo

Lawrence Russell

Key Largo (1948) dir. John Huston writ. Richard Brooks and J.H. (from the play by Maxwell Anderson) cine. Karl Freund music Max Steiner star. Humphrey Bogart (McLeod) Lauren Bacall (Nora) Lionel Barrymore (Temple), Edward G. Robinson (Rocco), Clair Trevor (Rocco's moll)

Largo reveals the ancient psychopathology -- arrogance among men, fear within Nature. God exists only in cataclysm or in dream, those direct temples of divination. It's only in dream or cataclysm that the apostate confronts his finite Self, grows fearful in the face of a greater power. The "dream" this time is the Largo Hotel run by an old man called Temple and his widowed daughter-in-law Nora, and the "cataclysm" is the hurricane that makes hostages of the gang that has taken the Temples hostage.

The apostate? He could be the exiled Prohibition gangster Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) who has slipped into the Keys from Cuba, has taken over the Hotel as he awaits some other hoods who will arrive from the North, buy his medicine bag of counterfeit money. Or he could be the veteran of the recent Italian Campaign, Major Frank McLeod (Bogart) who has come to visit the Temples to tell them about his friend George Temple -- the son, the husband -- who died in Italy, another American hero whose nebulous passing is a spiritual counterpoint to the criminal fascism of Rocco.

While he gives a fond peroration about George to Temple and Nora, McLeod is a post-war cynic, taciturn in the face of the Rocco take-over, self-interested when he declines a gun duel with the treacherous gangster. While Nora (Bacall) impulsively deems him a coward, the "Major" seems to have the instinctive cunning necessary to outwit the enemy, as the wounded cop who tries to stand in for him dies because only Rocco has bullets in his gun.

You don't know how many people McLeod killed in the war, but he does alright at Key Largo. Forced to ferry Rocco and his hoods back to Cuba, he does a quick circle in the sea-mist, comes back with a boat load of bodies. He dumps the first hood off the stern, shoots the second in the stomach, the third in the heart, the fourth is shot by Rocco, and the fifth is Rocco... who is shot from above the wheel house, where McLeod hovers like an avenging angel. Not bad for a man trying to get over a slap in the face from a man with all the bullets.

That Rocco is killed with his own gun is a small irony compared to his own humiliation by the hurricane. As the storm rages -- it tosses back the body of the cop he murdered and dumped in the ocean -- Rocco becomes fearful. Big with a gun in his hand, he's small with out it. He's easy to hate: he's lewd with the beautiful widow Nora, and needlessly cruel with his drunken mistress, Eustace.

As Rocco gazes fearfully upwards anticipating the cataclysm, everyone recognizes the real coward:

McLeod: You don't like it, do you, Rocco? If it doesn't stop, why don't you show it your gun?

Indeed. Big on atmosphere, Key Largo is really just a sentimental reprise of Robert Sherwood's tragic masterpiece, The Petrified Forest. Bogart reverses his roles -- criminal for saint -- although no one could accuse him of being a poet who will take a bullet to fulfill a sense of tragic destiny.

© LR 75/99


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