Edward G. Robinson is one of my favorite actors, especially in the film noir genre. He starred in many classic thrillers, including SCARLET STREET, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, LITTLE CAESAR, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and KEY LARGO. He was such a refined actor, bringing gravitas and history to his characters. His face is so expressive. With just a look, he can convey subtle emotions. Robinson had a strong line delivery, serving his words with poison or pitifulness. The actor made his name as a gangster in LITTLE CAESAR, and that archetype stayed with him. However, his range of characters is wide and appreciable.
KEY LARGO might be one of Robinson’s most well regarded films, perhaps second to DOUBLE INDEMNITY. It is famous for its hotel setting, for Robinson’s cruel performance, and for being the final film in which Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall appeared together. The real life married couple previously worked on TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, THE BIG SLEEP, and DARK PASSAGE together. The film also features the Academy Award winning role for actress Claire Trevor. The great John Huston directs KEY LARGO. He and Bogart collaborated on some of their most iconic films, like THE AFRICAN QUEEN, THE MALTESE FALCON, and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. With Robinson, Bogart, Bacall, Trevor, and Huston together, the film is a classic film noir.
Bogart stars as Frank McCloud, a war veteran visiting Key Largo to see the family of his departed war buddy. He meets Mr. Temple (the veteran Lionel Barrymore) and his widowed daughter-in-law Nora (Bacall). The Temples own a hotel in Key Largo, shut down during the summer. But when notorious gangster Rocco (Robinson), exiled to Cuba for being an undesirable alien, comes to the hotel, he takes over, and the group is stranded during a hurricane.
Film noir is an indefinable genre. The name evokes emotion, mood, and atmosphere, not a set list of genre conventions. That’s why film noir can encompass many different kinds of stories. While each film noir usually deals with crime, betrayal, and murder—there is no clear, standard definition of film noir. What connects films within the film noir aesthetic are the faces. The actors who star in film noir are captivating, with interesting features and laser eyes. KEY LARGO features some remarkable close-ups. Huston’s camera captures these characters with precision and an eye for character history and detail.
Take for instance the powerful moment featuring Dawn (Trevor), Rocco’s girlfriend. Dawn is a woman who has suffered the consequences of being a gangster’s moll: tired looks, alcoholism, defeat. Rocco forces her to sing in order to get a drink from him. Broken and desperate, Dawn offers an off-key performance of “Moanin’ Low,” struggling to sing coherently. The song is the story of her life, but Rocco deems her rendition unworthy and denies her the drink. Trevor is phenomenal in the scene, her face is shown pathetically and harshly. It’s the kind of tragic character moment that’s all too rare in film noir. KEY LARGO does have a femme fatale, but it’s not star Lauren Bacall. Claire Trevor plays the aftermath of being a femme fatale.
Part of the reason why KEY LARGO has endured is that it takes the time to give each character some history and narrative complexity. The film briefly explores the treatment of Native Americans, foreigners, and war veterans in postwar society. McCloud is not just a soldier, a friend, or a hero, but someone who just wants to live. Bogart often played characters who do not want to get involved but get pulled in by their sense of duty. His face—handsome, weary, brooding—doesn’t signify a typical hero. And Bogart was no typical hero.
Lauren Bacall gets to play a softer version of a film noir heroine. When I first saw the film, it was right after seeing her in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT and THE BIG SLEEP, and it was jarring to see her as a somewhat innocent character. Even outside the femme fatale archetype, she harbors a mystery, and much of that comes from her striking, unusual face.
KEY LARGO is a tense, claustrophobic thriller. The film features some strong twists, good action, and memorable characters. John Huston brought together a film that recognizes the reality of film noir, showing after effects of life in crime. Admittedly, the hurricane outside matching the storm inside is blunt, but provides a new kind of suspense. KEY LARGO is a slow-burning firecracker, and the explosion is worth the wait. In a film like KEY LARGO, the story is told through the face.