Key Largo (1948) differs from other Humphrey Bogart film noirs in that it is based on a play rather than on the writings of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, or David Goodis. It was, however, adapted and directed for the screen by John Huston, writer and director of The Maltese Falcon. The overall plot of the story, of course, deals with crime and criminals, but the themes of this movie differ from the usual crime story themes.
The basic premise of this film is would an individual, who risked his life in the World War II conflict, risk his life as a personal choice in order to rid the world of "evil." In the World War, many risked and gave their lives for the greater good, unified by a society that made it a moral imperative. This film places a returning veteran in a position where he can make that choice without that social pressure. The theme of prisons, being placed in social constraints, permeate the story, as well as the relationships between the powerful and the powerless.
From the opening scene of this film, the motif of prisons makes its appearance. The police stop a bus, asking the driver if he's seen two "Indians" that had just escaped from jail. On the bus is the returning veteran, Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), on his way to Key Largo. He arrives at the Largo Hotel, and met with disdain by the "guests" sitting at the bar. All except for a drunken woman (Claire Trevor) sitting at the bar listening to the horse races. In the course of the story we learn she is a lush; a prisoner or alcohol.
When Frank explains he is looking for the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Temple, he is told he can find him out by the boathouse. There McCloud meets Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his daughter-in-law Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall). It should be noted that Mr. Temple is confined to a wheelchair, another type of prison. It prohibits him from doing what he desires to do. Here we learn that George Temple, Nora's husband, was killed in the war. We also learn that McCloud was George's commanding officer in the war. Since the war Frank has moved from job to job, hoping to find work on a boat. Life on land is "too complicated." He wishes to escape it. The boat, then, becomes a symbol of freedom.
McCloud helps Nora tie down the boat. The weather reports warn of a hurricane. While they do this local Native Americans come to seek refuge at Largo Hotel. Included in the group are the two prison escapees. Nora observes that the elder Temple is "the United States of America" to these people. This is important because he will come to embody American society. He will give voice to the notion that the sacrifice of the individual to rid the world of evil is a moral imperative. His handicap reminds the viewer of F. D. Roosevelt, a signifier of Temple as the embodiment of America.
As the winds pick up Nora and Frank begin boarding up the hotel. The hotel becomes prison-like. The local sheriff comes, looking for the escaped Native Americans. The sheriff is assured by Temple that they are not on the premises. The deputy sheriff expresses his desire to look around, but the sheriff compels him to leave. Later the phone rings, one of the "guests" answers the phone. He tells the person on the other end that Temple and Nora are not at the hotel. This marks the first appearance of Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Rocco a gangster exiled by the United States as an "undesirable". Exile is a form of imprisonment. It prevents Rocco from moving about freely in America. It is a punishment for his crimes.
We also learn that the deputy had returned, saw Rocco, and was taken prisoner by the "guests" of the hotel; Rocco's henchmen. Temple, as the embodiment, the voice, of America call Rocco "filth" that should have been "exterminated." When Rocco asks McCloud why he fought in the war, he mentions "ancient evils" that should have been wiped off the earth.
Rocco gives him a gun, and tells him to get rid of Johnny Rocco, but it will cost him his life. Temple commands him to shoot. McCloud doesn't shoot, however. He says one Johnny Rocco in the world isn't worth dying for.
This is the crux of the movie. Given an individual choice, a person will choose self-preservation over self-sacrifice. The deputy, in a uniform which signifies conformity to American ideals, grabs the gun. He must act like a deputy officer and bring Rocco in, whether it costs him his life or not. The irony, of course, is the gun was never loaded. The deputy died without ever having a chance to kill Rocco. Later when asked why he didn't shoot, McCloud says, "I only care about me and mine."
Two of Rocco's thugs dump the deputy's body in the ocean. The storm picks up. Rocco gets a call from the people he and his crew have been waiting for. He tells them to travel through the storm. The power goes out. He makes the "lush", who we learn is his wife, sing for a drink. It is a way for him to feel powerful in the situation. His wife sings, not very well, and Rocco refuses to give her a drink. Frank gives her a drink and Rocco slaps him. The storm grows stronger. Rocco is visibly scared. He has no power over the storm and it scares him. This will be important, later, during the climax of the film. Temple makes a public prayer that a huge wave will drown Rocco and his henchmen.
A huge gust breaks a window, and we see shots of a violent storm, and the "Indians" outside. Rocco refused to let them inside, despite their repeated and lies to Temple when he asks if they came to find shelter at the hotel. The gang learns that their boat has sailed to deeper waters, and because the captain of the ship was threatened with death if he did so, he would not be coming back. The "boys" tell Johnny Rocco that McCloud can sail, and Rocco tells McCloud that he'll be sailing him back to Cuba. "I won't take you," McCloud tells him.
The sheriff knocks on the door, looking for his lost deputy. He tells everyone that he got a call from the deputy from Hotel Largo, but when he returned it he was told Nora and the elder Temple weren't there. Everyone says they haven't seen him, and the sheriff leaves. At the same time, the criminals Rocco and his gang have been waiting for finally arrive. They go inside, exchange Rocco's counterfeit bills for their real currency. The hoodlums depart. In the meantime, the sheriff, who has searched the grounds, finds his deputy's body which has washed ashore during the storm. He returns, and blames Temple for his death. Rocco blames the escaped "Indians." The sheriff searches for them and kills them.
Johnny Rocco and his gang pack to leave. In a fit of hysteria his wife asks him to take her with him back to Cuba. He refuses. She secretly takes his gun and slips it to McCloud. Before they leave, Rocco whispers something dirty into Nora's ear. He had done this earlier in the film, just before offering McCloud the chance to kill him, and Nora had spat in his face. McCloud now agrees to sail Rocco and his men back to Cuba.
Before he does, as Rocco's men load the boat, Frank has a chance to run. "Why doesn't he run?" Rocco's wife asks. Indeed, this is the question. Rocco is sure to kill him when they reach Cuba, so it seems certain he will try to fight it out on the boat. The boat represents freedom. If Frank now has freedom of choice, why does he decide to do now that which he wouldn't do before, kill Johnny Rocco. "I only care about me and mine," Frank said earlier. One gets the feeling that his deepening feelings for Nora that progresses throughout the story is what compels him to "rid the world" of the evil that Rocco represents. In uniform he had unnamed masses to fight for, but in this situation there is a specific person he wants to defend.
During the final shootout, all of Rocco's henchmen are killed, leaving only Rocco. He's scared. He is not in control of the situation. He pleads with Frank, offers to give him half the money, then all the money. He pretends to give up his gun, and that he'll come out with no weapons. From his vantage point Frank can see him lying, and shoots him three times when he comes in to view. Frank turns the boat around, and heads back to Key Largo.
Text (c) LCB 2000
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