Retrospective: Key Largo (1948)


Key Largo is not as well-known as The Thin Man series or as iconic as Casablanca, but  it is a very fine piece of classic film noir with a really nice psychological angle, featuring a uniquely confined space for the pressure to rise. This slow side of film noir has sadly been missed by most modern interpretations which often get the look and depressive atmosphere down to a tee but miss the ‘less is more approach’. Two of my favourite movies, LA Confidential and Sin City, are good example of films which get the look, the atmosphere, the cynicism, the depression and the corruption correct but not the slow disdainful look of the central character observing and only participating to the bare minimum, while people who care get in too deep and his cold shell is only pieced when someone pisses him off or he falls in love and sees a softness behind the cold shell of a person. Perhaps Drive is a good example of a recent film offering a modern reinterpretation of film noir but keeping the same sort of feeling. What do you think?

We’re introduced to Humphrey Bogart, playing a retired army colonel and on a bus to the Florida keys on the off season (ie the time of year with the massive hurricanes winds and makes my windy, wet university in Wales seem positively benign). Once he reaches his old friend’s hotel we meet these distinctly gangster looking gangsters who get into a rather threatening if perfectly polite battle of words with Bogart. This war of words gives the impression of Bogart being someone you don’t want to mess with. He’s slow to anger but when angry you fear him. We are then introduced to one off the most interesting characters of the movie: a drunken gangster moll who is now old, drunk and not too pretty but nonetheless has feelings.  We finally see the purpose of his appearance, which is to talk to the old owner of the hotel, a wheelchair bound friendly cripple beloved of his Florida community and his daughter in law, played by the pretty Lauran Bacall.

The movie is basically set in the hotel, bar a few exceptions and it has a great sense of psychological drama with a hostage taking and lots of big wordy conversations talking about people’s feelings and emotional states, full of discussions of bulling, cowardice and manipulation. During this time a form of romance blossoms between Bacall and Bogart in the nice restrained way that he does so well. What is nice is that the weather interrupts characters and is used as a tool for the hostages to gain superiority over the gangsters. As you see them quake with fear, the wind howls and forces trees though the windows.

Sometimes during movies I try to predict what will happen next but this film constantly surprised me on how it develops with at least two red herrings which have you expecting one conclusion and you get something completely different. It’s interesting how Bogart’s character is jaded by his fighting in Italy, a favourite battlefield for ambiguous characters in movies post WW2 as Italy was a slow and unpleasant slog without the best troops and kit, so it was easy to give characters from that campaign those attributes of seeming somewhat second best. Everyone is a dreamer in this movie. The gangsters dream of the good days of prohibition and fervently wish it would return. The women are interesting as the moll has a heart wrenching song about being stuck in an abusive relationship and longs for some stability, and Bacall wishes for family and purpose.

Key Largo is extremely deep for a pulpy film noir movie, with a great cast and veteran director, John Huston. The actors and director were all familiar working with each other and in fact Bogart and Bacall were married when the movie was made and this was their last movie as a pairing. Good actors, solid plot based off a bestselling play, good director to manage the cast all equals one excellent movie.

Retrospective by Harry Riedl

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