Wednesday 11 August 2010

Movie Review: Key Largo (1948)

A crime and hostage-taking drama, Key Largo is all about the intensity of mood and an improvised battle of wills between two determined characters.

Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), a deported thug who once ran a criminal empire, washes up with his gang at a Key Largo hotel run by the wheelchair-bound James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his daughter-in-law Nora (Lauren Bacall). Rocco's gang takes over the hotel as they wait for the arrival of another group of thugs to conclude a money laundering deal.

Appearing at just at the wrong moment as far as Rocco is concerned is war hero Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), and soon after him a massive storm blows in to batter the hotel and its occupants. The heart of the story is the intellectual duel between Rocco and McCloud, two men cut from the same unyielding cloth. They are frequently interrupted by the fluttering emotions emerging to bind Frank and Nora, the bombastic booziness of Rocco's wife (Claire Trevor, neither searching for nor finding nuance), and a hopelessly appended subplot about some Indians on the run from the law.

Bogart and Bacall exchange psychobabble that veers erratically between embarrassing and unconvincing. Robinson chews the scenery, chews the cigar, and chews out anyone who looks at him sideways. A lot of henchman stand around in the background, sweating hard and trying harder to find something to do as director John Huston's cameras focus on his stars. A storm rages outside, gaining in intensity as the bad guys gain the upper hand, blowing in the shutters at climactic moments, with the sun bursting forth on cue when the good guys appear to seize the advantage.

It's all silly, classic fun, stage-bound for sure, none of it really very good, but engrossing nevertheless once the mental war erupts between Bogart and Robinson. Key Largo is highly watchable entertainment, relying almost entirely on the strength of its cast to overpower and beat into submission a contrived story. Sometimes, the performers just are the performance.

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