Key Largo (1948)

Film Title: Key Largokey_largo_xlg

Year: 1948

Studio: Warner Brothers

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Film Noir


  • Humphrey Bogart
  • Edward G. Robinson
  • Lauren Bacall
  • Lionel Barrymore
  • Claire Trevor


The setup is eerily familiar. A group of people find themselves in each other’s company, held captive by some unforeseen incident and problems undoubtedly ensue. We’ve seen this happen more than once, 1985’s “The Breakfast Club” for example. However, this time, it’s slightly different. This time the company is mandatory, and there is little to learn about the enforcer that the media has not already covered. So what could be the reason for this cluster of egos? What is trapping them between the walls of a small hotel deep in the recesses of the country? What exactly is going on in Key Largo?

Directed by John Huston, and based on a 1939 Maxwell Anderson play, Key Largo stars Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco, the stereotypical “big boss” gangster who often speaks of himself in the third person. He and his goons have infiltrated a hotel in the Florida Keys as they await word of a “piece of business”. Meanwhile, a war hero named Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits the hotel to speak with its owner, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), who is also the father of a soldier that McCloud knew in the war. As McCloud arrives, Rocco’s men are already peppered throughout the hotel lobby. They appear bored and restless, but determined on giving McCloud the once over. Rocco makes his presence known among the rest of the hotel’s inhabitants, all the while reassuring his gang that they will be out of there in a few hours. McCloud and Rocco’s personalities soon clash. As Rocco’s business plans come to light, McCloud realizes he may have little choice but to throw caution to the wind, literally, with a raging hurricane on shore. The daughter-in-law of the hotel owner, Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), adds the elements of both innocence and frustration for Bogart’s character. With his nonchalant demeanor comes the task of maintaining a relaxed appearance. Bacall’s mere presence undoubtedly kicked it into another level of difficulty.

This film presented some difficulty in choosing one character as the centerpiece. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco is a narcissistic Al Capone type whose only fear seems to be the wrath of Mother Nature, the one thing he cannot control with intimidation and gunfire. He is respected by his men and commands admiration for his track record of dirty deeds. Bogart’s Frank McCloud is a man torn by uncertainty. He never seems able to choose between logic and instinct. A scene in which Robinson promises a drink to an ex-girlfriend in return for a song, only to deny her the drink once she complies, prompts Bogart to pour her the drink anyway. He knows in his heart it’s the right thing to do, albeit a dangerous move as it belittles Robinson’s status. There is an unspoken power struggle among Bogart and Robinson for attention. One would find much intricacy in picking the more dominating character, yet they are balanced by the heartlessness of Rocco and the incurable charity of McCloud. Lauren Bacall’s character isn’t as prominent in Key Largo as it had been in previous films. This being the final collaboration between her and Bogart, the screenwriters chose to set her back a bit. She appears helpless most of the time, much different than her usual sharp-witted and independent roles. Although her surroundings and the situations unfolding within are clearly understood, she doesn’t seem strong enough to act on decision-making alone. The obvious feelings developing for McCloud serve as another detriment to her strength. Lionel Barrymore is a wheelchair-bound man with strong opinions and dislike for the Johnny Rocco’s of the world. His outbursts continue to slice inches from Rocco’s patience. If for nothing else but the safety of his daughter-in-law and McCloud, he manages to stop just short of pulling the pin of Rocco’s grenade.

Rocco is a walking time-bomb, a madman with enough sensibility to remain calm when he has to. The smallest incident causes him to explode, yet his buttons are pushed much further, to which he responds with silence. This becomes a rollercoaster to the viewer, never fully knowing what to expect with each passing scene. When will he lose it and when will he restrain himself? Who knows? Encompassing this see-saw is a claustrophobic atmosphere, similar to a psychological experiment where two people are locked in a room while the temperature steadily increases. As the heat smothers judgment, attitudes shift and the subjects become nothing like the docile people they were in the beginning. This is a personality-chamber where anything can happen. The results are limited only by the individual and how far they let themselves go. Key Largo walks the same tightrope.

On Video

Warner Brothers released “Key Largo” in February 2000 and did it tremendous justice with a stunning transfer. The video is crisp, which lends support to the strong shadows and facial expression of the characters. These are two crucial elements of Key Largo’s modus operandi, both staples in its approval as a film noir. The audio is also excellent, very clean with hardly any dialogue indiscernible. There is also the option of French audio, along with both English and French subtitles. In addition to the transfer, the DVD also provides us with the theatrical trailer and the film’s production notes. Film aficionados will no doubt find these notes a welcomed bonus. They offer insight and are becoming increasingly popular among information hounds.


Key Largo is a story about conscience, those who have it and those who don’t. Those who do have it are locked in a constant battle of choices. Ironically enough, those choices are usually necessary maneuvers around the actions of those without a conscience. Bogart’s confrontations are no different than everyday life, and Robinson’s villain is the wall we must climb to overcome challenge. In any event, this is another tale based on a true story, our true story and the world’s true story.

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