Although John Huston’s fifth film was based on the 1939 play Key Largo by Maxwell Anderson, the script was changed so drastically by Huston and Richard Brooks that it’s effectively an original story. It opens amidst the humid landscapes that were so popular in American cinema during the 1940s, where they typically represented the fringes of the Second World War, places where Americans could find some line of flight from the conflict, usually by sea or by air. The difference, in this case, is that we’re not dealing with a foreign outpost, but with the fringes of the United States itself, in what was at this time, the first Hollywood film of this stature to be set exclusively in the Florida Keys. The first character we meet is Frank McCloud, played by Humphrey Bogart, a retired Major who has made his way down to Key Largo to meet James Temple, played by Lionel Barrymore, and Nora Temple, played by Lauren Bacall, the father and widow of one of his best friends in the military. When he arrives at the hotel where they live and work, they are overjoyed to see him, and beg him to stay the night, so that he can tell them about George Temple’s time in the war.
Three things quickly intrude, however, to prevent Frank’s time in the Keys going as planned. First, he gets word that a pair of Indians have escaped from prison, and are reputedly lurking around the hotel. As it turns out, this is a bit of a red herring, since the Indians are being protected by James Temple, who has a good relationship with the local Indian community. Second, a hurricane is on its way, and is likely to hit Key Largo that evening. Third, the hotel has been taken over by a collection of gangsters, helmed by Johnny Rocco, played by Edward G. Robinson, a gangster from the Prohibition era who is on the verge of making a comeback. With the hurricane closing in, and Rocco taking over the hotel, Frank, Lionel and Nora have no choice but to bunker down for the night, and wait until Rocco’s criminal contacts can make their way down to Key Largo. He assures them that he will only be there for a couple of hours, but it’s not quite clear what will happen to them after that.
All those factors make Key Largo one of the first examples of film soleil, films that took the visual vocabulary of noir and grafted it onto sunny, often Floridian, backdrops to make its impact even more dramatic. Although the film starts out bright, midsummer in the Keys is presented as an inherently inhospitable prospect, due to the heat, while travelling to the Keys in the midst of summer immediately signals Rocco and his men as suspicious. While Rocco only descends from his room after dark, the hurricane brings on a premature night, first by forcing the characters to close the shutters, then to resort to electric light, then to resort to gaslight when the generator gives out. Between the few gas lamps scattered about the hotel, and the periodic bursts of lightning, Huston manages to carve an intensified night from the brightest of summer days – what James Naremore called the “more than night” that made noir so haunting, and which was often most pronounced when it was not night.
The soleil mode doesn’t simply replicate noir in a brighter setting, however, but often offers a more positive outlook than noir, intensifying the despair but also the hope of this darkest of American film genres. While this is one of the most understated rapports that Bacall and Bogart ever experienced on the big screen – they don’t kiss once, and aren’t seen together in the film’s denouement – there’s no need for direct depictions of affection, since the impending hurricane suffuses the space around the hotel with a convulsive romantic intensity. That’s especially clear in the burgeoning, billowing space at the end of the hotel’s wharf, which becomes the starting-point for all the lavish interior crane shots that follow, instilling all the scenes that take place on it with a yearning melancholy and a burnished pathos. This sense of longing crystallises just as the local Indian royalty are coming onshore to bed down for the hurricane, amidst a glitter of sea, land and light, although the effect isn’t exactly to romanticise the Indians, or use them as a mere backdrop for a Western story. Instead, Key Largo seems deeply, uncomfortably aware that the film’s profound displacement from America is something only an Indian sense of belonging could possibly assuage, as the Keys signal a kind of finitude to Westerners’ ability to call the land their own.
By the time we move back inside the hotel, and the hurricane begins, that breathless awareness of space has turned into a preternatural stillness, in which everything is suspended, a bit too still, slightly stilted in the gangsters efforts’ to look normal to any passerby who seeks refuge inside. In the hush before the storm, these moments anticipate the eye of the hurricane more than the hurricane itself, as each character exudes a pellucid clarity and calm that makes this the single most understated performance of Bogart, Bacall, Barrymore and Robinson’s careers. That’s really saying something, and a testament to Huston’s sense of ensemble drama, transforming the space between the characters, and their awareness of this space, into the main subject matter of the film, thereby distinguishing it from the theatrical version more than any change in plot ever could. As the hurricane intensifies, the silence intensifies, until the hotel has become the eye of the storm, exuding a quietness that is distinct from the storm outside, but also dependent on it.
This breeds a new level of calm assurance from Huston in turn, as he sets about to make the most of this single space, drawing on Karl Freund’s experience as director of photography to experiment with all the ways he can alternate between the perceptions of individual characters and the perception of the ensemble as whole. Sometimes this involves shots in which three or four facial expressions are taken into account, while sometimes it involves deep, dreamy close-ups, as their intense proximity to each other forces each of the main characters to dig deep into their own past. Time and again, Huston favours ingenious yet unobtrusive compositions, anchored in mirrors, objects and thresholds that manage to evoke the gaze of the whole room even when only one or two people are in the frame. The sequence shots are particular spectacular, especially when they shift, suddenly, from close-ups of key characters to long shots in which those same characters are waiting and watching in the background, producing a profoundly decentred film in which Bogart and Bacall always feel more marginal than they actually are. Momentary skirmishes are always subsumed back into stillness, offset by the shared awareness of other characters watching, as Huston pays exquisite attention to the contours of the face, and the thresholds between the face and the space, from a scene in which Rocco is being shaved as he lays down his conditions, to his intense facial proximities to Nora, who he forces into a kiss at one moment of intense conflict, but who spits directly in his face when he tries the same move again shortly after.
This dreamlike space helps move Key Largo into a film about the evolution of cinema itself in the sound era – specifically the evolution of the gangster figures of the 1930s into the hard-boiled characters of the 1940s. From the outset, it’s clear that Robinson’s Rocco is not only riffing upon his own career-making performance as Rico in Little Caesar, but upon the classic gangster period more generally, leading him to exclaim, at one point, “Public enemy he calls me – me, who gave him his public!” Rather than a figure firmly set in the present, Rocco was declared an undesirable alien following his heyday in the 20s and 30s, and has only just returned to the country, desperate to use the Keys as his first foothold in reclaiming his power over the American consciousness. As a result, his actions seem shrouded in a kind of irreversible past tense (“Whoever he couldn’t corrupt, he terrified, whoever he couldn’t terrify, he murdered”), while his youngest henchman isn’t even old enough to have any clear sense of who he was. As the film proceeds, he reunites with a variety of figures from his past, including his girlfriend Gaye Dawn, played by Claire Trevor, and his former gangster contacts, but they just seem to remove him further from that past.
Huston’s dreamlike atmosphere thus ensures that Frank and Rocco (and Bogart and Robinson) both play as two distinct characters, and two distinct cinematic archetypes encountering and contemplating one another. Frank’s first gesture towards Rocco is one of tribute, as he appeases him by explaining his legacy and significance to Nora, James and the rest of Rocco’s own henchmen. To be sure, it’s a strategic gesture, designed to prevent Rocco flying off the hook, but it also suggests that Frank knows Rocco in a more intimate way than any of the other characters in the film. Moreover, Rocco brings out a strange ambivalence on Frank’s part, forcing him to rehearse and rerehearse his hard-boiled utterances as if trying to figure how much they owe to Rocco, and to what he represents. As a result, it’s often unclear whether Frank is aligned with Rocco or the Temples, since while he never stops looking out for John and Nora’s best interests, he seems to gravitate towards this gangster archetype despite himself, as if recognizing a continuity that he can’t fully articulate or conceptualise. In part, that’s because Rocco’s charisma is so pronounced that it is able to absorb much of the hard-boiled manner that Frank initially thinks of as his own, as if Robinson were so attuned to the gangster role that he was able to also absorb the hard-boiled lexicon that would eventually emerge and evolve out of it. Rocco is the only character who kisses Nora on the mouth – a real noir kiss, hard and fast – while he’s the only character in the film who seems really capable of surviving in a city, a pointed contrast to Frank’s refrain that he’s tired of drifting through cities, and attempting to live an urban life.
These gestures don’t only produce an odd affinity on Frank’s part, but on the part of Rocco, who seems to sense that Frank is critical to his plans to reinvent himself as a gangster. One of the first things we learn about Rocco is that he is terrified of silence when he can’t control it, just as he terrified of his legacy and presence as a gangster being silenced by a new generation who can’t remember him. Only when he can control silence is he comfortable with silence, and one of his most novel methods of control is to force his henchman to have the same conversation over and over again in his presence. Anderson’s original play was written in blank verse, and something of that rhythmic pulse comes through in these staged conversations, in which Rocco’s henchman repetively and mechanically reassure him of his biggest hope – that this post-war period will resemble the last post-war period, that Prohibition will come again, and that an opportunity for bootlegging will therefore come again. For many people, the aftermath of WWII felt apocalyptic because it might lead to another world war, or even nuclear annihilation, but Rocco embraces that apocalyptic mindset, believing that history repeating itself is the best possible thing that can happen, because it means that, for now, he can relive the Prohibition era with even more prosperity.
For Rocco, then, WWII has been a boon, just as the prospect of WWIII is a boon, since it means that he can relive his heyday in the 1920s and 1930s over and over again, improving each time on his ability to elude the police and build better relationships with other organized criminals. These mechanical assurances on the part of his henchman sink deep into the silences of the film, until they feel like a mantra, or even a prophecy, that Rocco is continually repeating to himself, synonymous with the hypnotic trance of Huston’s mise-en-scene as a whole. With every move they make, Rocco and his men insist to themselves that they can return to the past, which is perhaps why the Indians are such a haunting and terrifying presence to them, signifying both a group of people whose claim on the past is even more expansive than their own, but also a group of people whose past has been irrevocably removed from them. Rocco’s apocalyptic visions thus often play out around the local Indians, who he condemns to stay outside during the hurricane, but whose faces flicker across his consciousness as a challenge to the glorious future he has prophecied for himself. It’s no coindicence that the oldest character in the film is an Indian, nor that she is played by Felipa Gomez, as the Hispanic and Indian claims on the Keys, and the historical depth of those claims, offsets Rocco’s efforts to claim it as his first foothold in recolonizing America.
It’s no coincidence, either, that Rocco’s treatment of the Indians forms the critical point at which Frank differentiates himself from him, by way of one of the most striking shots of Huston’s career so far – a remarkable close-up of Bogart’s face, quivering, distorted, and slightly blurred with rage, but also slightly violated by a camera that has moved just a little too close for cinematic decorum. So modern is this shot that it seems to propel Frank even further into the future, making it even more difficult for Rocco to appropriate him to broker his connection with the present, and distending the space between the two of them to the stylised sequence that ends the film. In this abbreviated third act, Rocco commands Frank to take his boat and start steering them towards Cuba, leaving John, Nora and Gaye back in the hotel. As the fog descends, land recedes, and all noise is muffled other than the waves and motor, the film ends a drifting, dreamlike zone that not only culminates the preternatural stillness of the hotel scenes, but seems to outline a space that can only be properly visualised by cinema itself. It is as if Huston has split the difference between Rocco’s deep past, and Frank’s distant future, landing us in a liminal zone where the fringes of WWII have now been internalised by the peripheries of the United States, producing a figurative freefall in which only the materialities of cinematic poses, postures and stances can be relied upon.
In a beautifully orchestrated conclusion, Bogart is now congealed into so many pellucid cinematic postures, smoking a cigarette at the helm before disposing of Rocco’s biggest bodyguard with a sudden swerve of the wheel, which sends him overboard. He then stops the boat, and climbs onto the roof, shooting each of the henchman, one by one, with nothing to accompany him but the wind and the idling motor. Eventually, only Rocco is left, confronted with the ultimate debilitating silence, which causes him to call out to Frank, and then come out from the cabin where he is hiding, despite the fact that Frank might well be dead, or lying in wait for him, both options that make it sensible for him to simply remain where he is. Crying out into the silence, Rocco’s voice becomes more and more histrionic, more and more absorbed into a past he will never reclaim, until he is shot by Rocco with a thunderous gunshot that simply seems to absorb the silence into itself, rather than break it in any way. Suspended on that silence, Rocco never again sees Nora or James in the film, which ends by framing him, triumphantly, posed against the backdrop of the ship, as if he needs to remain there simply to contain the silence, the slippage, that has crept up over the course of the story. Revolted by witnessing the legacy of his hard-boiled manner, but unable to envisage a future beyond that hard-boiled manner either, as futuristic as he might have seemed to Rocco, Frank is left in a space whose indeterminacy perhaps recalls Huston’s war films, and The Battle of San Pietro in particular, more emphatically than anything else in his filmography. It’s appropriate, then, that Frank is a veteran of San Pietro, describing his experience to John and Nora by describing scenes from Huston’s film. And, like the men of Huston’s film, there’s no way home for him from here, even or especially as he has arrived home, or is arriving home as the film ends – arriving and arriving, but never quite landing, still drifting, like so many of the characters that Bogart would play in Huston’s filmography.