Wednesday, June 29, 2016

KEY LARGO (1948)

Warner Bros., 100m 24s

It is always a pleasure to revisit KEY LARGO, one of the finest Warner Bros. products of the classic studio system era. Every time I watch it, I admire it a little more. Though not an overtly noir production in terms of visual style, its character types and situations reflect a society still coping with the aftermath of prohibition and war, which neatly positions the film in the noir universe from a narrative sense. Dramatic events of the past almost always give shape to the film noir.

"Frank McCloud, no address."

Set in the upper Florida Keys, an unlikely area for a noir story to unfold, KEY LARGO presents a group of disparate people struggling to find themselves after World War II. The drama occurs at and around a hotel owned by James Temple (Lionel Barrymore with pants under armpits), who is confined to a wheelchair more often than not. He lives at the hotel with his jaw-droppingly beautiful daughter-in-law Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), the widow of the elder Temple's son George, who was killed overseas. Dropped off by bus is visitor Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), who served as George's commanding officer in Italy. The war took a lot out McCloud, maybe everything. Despite an American victory, he has been converted into a defeated character, an itinerant job-hopper since the war ended. Nothing sticks to McCloud, who may have landed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not only is a hurricane approaching, but an unsavory group of mugs led by exiled mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) have rented the entire Temple hotel for one week under the pretense of a deep-sea fishing trip. Rocco's cohorts include Richard "Curly" Hoff (Thomas Gomez, RIDE THE PINK HORSE [1947], FORCE OF EVIL [1948]), Edward "Toots" Bass (Harry Lewis, THE UNSUSPECTED [1947], GUN CRAZY [1950]), Angel Garcia (Dan Seymour, THE BIG HEAT [1953]) and the gangster moll Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor, MURDER, MY SWEET [1944], BORN TO KILL [1947]). In a related plot thread, the local sheriff Ben Wade (Monte Blue) and his deputy Clyde Sawyer (John Rodney) are looking for two Native Americans who escaped from jail:  John Osceola (Rodd Redwing) and Tom Osceola (Jay Silverheels). The Osceola brothers trust Mr. Temple, who truly wants to assist them. The boys get no help from the egocentric Rocco, though, who is loyal to nobody, not even his old crime buddy Ziggy (Marc Lawrence in a hilarious turn).

"There's only one Johnny."

The role of the cigar-chomping gangster figure Rocco points to one of the major differences between the noir film of the late 1940s and the gangster film popularized in the 1930s. One of the last of a dying breed, Rocco is set up as McCloud's double, each man with no clear role in post-WWII, post-prohibition society. Despite his lack of place, the arrogance of the gangster persists. In a memorable moment, Rocco cannot stop talking about himself long enough to get a complete shave. However, other folks do not share the gangster's high opinion of himself. Though he is unable to mount much of a challenge, Mr. Temple is the most outspoken about the "filth" Rocco represents. Temple embodies a familiar noir staple:  the crippled man whose ideals are undone by physical limitations. McCloud suggests Rocco turn his gun on the hurricane in a pointless gesture that only would underscore the gangster’s loss of power since the time of prohibition. Interestingly, Rocco is in the process of making his comeback as a counterfeiter; he literally cannot make money any of the old-fashioned ways (alcohol, slots, etc.).

Both Bogart and Robinson appeared as arch criminals in plenty of gangster films for Warner throughout the prior decade, so there is an obvious irony at work when Robinson's character is at odds with the man Bogart portrays. It seems McCloud would rather live a coward than die a hero when he admits, "One Rocco more or less isn't worth dying for." But McCloud ejects from self-preservation mode when he instinctively shows compassion for the embarrassing drunkard Dawn at her most humiliated. In the film's dramatic turning point, Nora reacts to the moral worth of McCloud; her gaze at him completely altered from that point on.

Mirrors suggest layered personalities in the film noir

KEY LARGO was the fourth collaboration between director John Huston and Bogart, who had combined previously on THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), ACROSS THE PACIFIC (1942), and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948). Maxwell Anderson's 1939 play, in which Paul Muni played McCloud, was adapted for the screen by Huston and Richard Brooks (BRUTE FORCE [1947], CROSSFIRE [1947], MYSTERY STREET [1950]). The dialogue is terrific and eminently quotable, especially when Rocco dominates the scene, as when he condemns the people he propped up who ultimately deported him, or when he lectures Dawn about her excessive drinking. Rocco's unfailing disregard for others allows for the redemption of some of the film's flawed characters and implies a second chance for the downtrodden.

Some location footage from the Florida Keys is featured, but cinematographer Karl Freund (METROPOLIS [1927], DRACULA [1931]) worked mostly within Warner sound stages (what a time traveling treat it would be to visit them!). In what makes for a superbly noir environment, the heat of the off season locale is noticeable on the sweaty faces of characters. The well-staged hurricane, a compilation of stock footage from NIGHT UNTO NIGHT (1949), injects more chaos into an already unstable situation. The editing by Rudi Fehr (POSSESSED [1947], THE DAMNED DON'T CRY [1950]) is skillful, particularly during the sequence when Rocco gives McCloud a gun and taunts him. As usual, the score by Max Steiner is overbearing at times. Great performances abound, especially by Robinson and Trevor, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Bogart offers one of his most subtle performances as the disillusioned veteran McCloud.

Warner Blu-ray

Warner DVD

The Warner Archive Collection dual-layered Blu-ray version of KEY LARGO boasts a magnificent transfer, framed at the correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 (the DVD version released in 2000 compressed the image to 1.33:1). The lack of supplemental material other than a trailer (2m 24s) is odd considering the revered status of this beloved black & white classic. Despite the absence of bonus features, this is a nice upgrade for owners of the DVD, no doubt about it.