Key Largo (Blu-ray Review)22 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor.
In addition to being the last of four films Humphrey Bogart made with his real-life onetime child bride Lauren Bacall, Key Largo was the swan song project for director John Huston on his original Warner Bros. contract, though he did return periodically to what had been his nurturing studio for projects as disparate as Moby Dick and Reflections in a Golden Eye. The timing on its new Blu-ray release is, turns out, rather keen — given that Olive Films has also just brought out, on a single disc, the four wartime documentaries Huston directed for the government in the early-to-mid 1940s. It even includes a rah-rah one with James Stewart (Winning Your Wings, which carries no directorial credit) that recruits for the U.S. Air Force by noting all the hot women that an enlistee’s uniform will almost certainly attract. Without mentioning, of course, those Catch-22 or Twelve O’Clock High downsides.
Olive’s package — Let There Be Light: The Wartime Documentaries of John Huston — is a primer on what the writer/director was doing for most of 1942-46, while Key Largo shows him going the postwar potboiler route. Of course, there was also a little thing called The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which came out in January almost six months before 1948’s Largo, though the former was so sexless and such an uncompromising masterpiece for its day that you can probably guess which one was bigger at the box office. Their near-tandem releases enabled the filmmaker to pull off something of a coup: both ’48 supporting Oscars went to performances in Huston movies (by father Walter Huston and Claire Trevor) but in different ones. More on Trevor in a minute, but thank the Largo leads for turning the picture into something of an old home week at Warner via something close to “event” casting.
Co-scripted by Huston and Richard Brooks from a play by Maxwell Anderson, Largo displayed full-octane showmanship by teaming two of the actors who helped put the studio’s talkies on the map — including the return of Edward G. Robinson in a gangster role and sporting what looks like all of the black hair dye Jack Warner’s stingy pockets would agree to bankroll. Of course, in the ’30s, Robinson was the much bigger star and Bogart a struggling featured player who still took a long time to reach full career fruition even after getting to repeat his stage role in The Petrified Forest playing the thug holed up in tight quarters and holding hostages at bay. But by 1948, things had changed; Bogart was the top draw, Eddie G. would soon hit a fallow period thanks to the Hollywood Graylist (see Trumbo, though, for any particular accuracy on this count), and it was Bogart cast as a reluctant hero trying to keep everyone alive against Robinson’s invading hoods at an obscure Florida Keys hotel. Meanwhile, there’s a storm coming.
Bogart is only in the area to pay a visit to the father and widow of a soldier he served with at the battle of San Pietro (subject of Huston’s famed documentary included on the Olive set). Lionel Barrymore, borrowed from MGM, plays the fallen colleague’s father, and in one tense scene even tries to get out of the wheelchair that defined the second half of his screen career to go at it with one of the invaders (something you never saw in one of his Dr. Gillespie movies). Bacall, meanwhile, is the now-single woman with the looks to escape this fishing village, though it turns out that she likes the area just fine. Despite all she could do for an evening dress (though not in this movie), it’s notable how convincingly down-to-Earth Bacall often seemed on screen.
Robinson has been deported but is briefly up from Cuba as part of a counterfeit money caper, though the storm threatens to put a crimp on his return boat trip. Included with his small entourage of flunkies is one out-of-favor mistress (Trevor), a once promising chanteuse whose preferred beverages these days are the kind that can shorten a career. Trevor is perfect in her relatively few scenes but almost surely got her Oscar for one that’s been excerpted in clip reels since I was a kid. It’s the set piece where Robinson makes her sing "Moanin’ Low" in front of everyone without benefit of musical accompaniment or (more to the point) a jump-starting snort — a delivery that inflicts equal pain on both herself and the hotel’s captive audience. Huston would later direct Susan Tyrrell to an Oscar nomination in a not dissimilar role in 1972’s Fat City.
There really isn’t a whole lot to the movie, but it’s crisply directed and paced with ensemble performances that make it a very smooth view. Most of it was apparently shot on a soundstage, but you still get the sense that the tide is rising with heavy winds just outside and that the escape boat back to Havana is ready to go if the weather will calm down enough for Robinson (memorably named “Johnny Rocco”) to evade authorities. The Warner Archive team has been doing a stellar Blu-ray job lately with black-and-white noirs and non-noir lowlife melodramas from the ’40s — both with the RKOs it’s long owned and homegrown product. Also just out is Bogart-Bacall’s The Big Sleep, a better movie than Largo unless you’re talking about finessing plot points that travel smoothly with A-to-B-to-C.
Bogart had two more movies to go with Huston but no more with Bacall after they’d done their four together in a mere five years. The two were set to go, however, with the project that eventually became 1957’s Kirk Douglas-Susan Hayward bomb Top Secret Affair before a dying Bogart became too sick for the follow-through. At least this enabled The Harder They Fall to be the actor’s final picture, one of the best movies and with one of the best roles a superstar ever went out on. I still can’t get too agitated about any perceived Oscar snub of Creed when an anti-boxing movie this tough — and much tougher than Concussion is on football — remains mostly obscure.