Key Largo (1948)

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*. There’s no shame in saying it doesn’t work any more. It scarcely worked at the time. It’s based on a talky (read: preachy) play by Maxwell Anderson that was written in blank verse and which John Huston and co-writer Richard Brooks didn’t like at all (Huston: “I hate this kind of play, I don’t like free [sic] verse. I don’t like Maxwell Anderson’s work. I don’t like him.”) They ended up doing a complete re-write, including a shootout on a boat (which was actually supposed to be the ending of To Have and Have Not).
*. In the play the Bogart character dies. That wasn’t going to happen in Hollywood. Instead he returns as the conquering hero, after an improbably arranged phone call back to Nora leads her to open the shutters to an annunciation of light.
*. I have to wonder if there’s ever been so much talent involved in a project that amounted to so little. I think the credits are probably the main reason it’s still so well regarded today. Huston co-wrote and directed. Karl Freund did the photography, Max Steiner the score. The cast was great. On paper it should have been much better. Where did they go wrong?
*. For starters, this is a Bogie and Bacall vehicle but they’re terrible together, seemingly tired of each other’s company. She is unaccountably off (Pauline Kael: “a stiff, amateurish performance”) and her husband seems lost and confused. Robinson is magnetic, though perhaps a little unsure of how seriously he was supposed to be playing things. He tries his best to get a rise out of Bacall by whispering (presumably) dirty nothings in her ear, but no dice. She’s the ice lady in this hothouse.

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*. Lionel Barrymore was in bad shape and, always a bit of a ham, he’s saddled here with the worst lines in a script that has more than a few of them. Which leaves Claire Trevor, who has a terrible role but managed to get an Academy Award for her command performance of “Moanin’ Low,” which is the dramatic high point of the movie.
*. The end of the Warner gangster line? Almost. Bosley Crowther: “This, to the old gangster-film fan, will smack distinctly of race suicide—or, at least, of deliberate self-destruction of a type through internecine strife. And this was, no doubt, an intention of those who arranged to bring two such notorious veterans of the old days together in this film. For a great deal of pertinent suggestion is unquestionably conveyed by the spectacle of one classic film thug putting the quietus on another one. Unfortunately, the staggering impact of the image itself is somewhat lost in an excess of prefatory talking, much of it along philosophical lines.”

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*. Only the opening shot of the bus on the causeway was done in Florida. The rest of it was filmed at the Warners studio in Burbank, at Jack Warner’s insistence (he was upset at the cost overruns from shooting The Treasure of the Sierra Madre on location). The hurricane footage was borrowed from another film (Night Unto Night). So, despite the semi-exotic setting and the title, this is a movie that doesn’t evoke any sense of place at all.
*. Pity the poor Osceola brothers. Or don’t. After all, they’re killed offscreen. They’re also clearly guilty of something or they wouldn’t be wanted by the law in the first place. And as Barrymore insists, everytime you try and do something good for those people it never works out (“seems like we can’t do anything but hurt these people even when we try to help them”). So there go another pair of dead Indians. Oh, Hollywood.

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*. Jeez, ol’ man Temple doesn’t half try and pimp his daughter out on the Major does he? “Why don’t you stay right on here with us Frank? You’re most welcome. Go on, tell him Nora. If he decides to stay here with us we’d be most happy. Go on, tell Frank. . . . I’d be proud to have you regard us as your family.”
*. For a morality play the moral is a mess. I guess the main point is that there are some things in life worth dying for, and that after winning WW2 America now had to face the enemy at home. This is overlain with a bunch of stuff about what makes a hero (or a coward). The problem, as I see it, is that the movie is awkward in its introduction of this theme, and I suspect not really interested in it. Huston was drawn to the material for its entertainment value but was saddled with a bunch of overly dramatic rhetoric and manouvering he couldn’t shake off. Still, at least he got a shot of Robinson smoking a cigar in the tub.

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