Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Noir Watch: Key Largo (1948)

I didn't have a particular reason I'd missed Key Largo (1948), but somehow I'd never gotten around to watching it, which is crazy.  Just the three names above the title should have been enough to get me to seek it out, and had I noticed Claire Trevor and Lionel Barrymore are also in the movie AND its directed by John Huston...

Anyway, better late than never.

Still adrift three years after the war, Major Frank McCloud stops by the hotel where he knows the father and wife of one of his brothers-in-arms from the Italy campaign are residing, way down in Key Largo, Florida.  His comrade was killed in action, and its not clear McCloud is doing terribly well on this side of the war.

But when he arrives at the hotel, it's the summer off-season, he can't immediately find his buddy's father or wife, and there are a few toughs hanging around the hotel bar with a blonde who seems like maybe she lives at the bottom of a bottle.

During all this, the local authorities are out looking for a couple of Native Americans who ran off from jail.  And, of course, a hurricane is blowing in.

We learn too late that the men are part of Johnny Rocco's gang, an old school gangster who was deported years ago and who is trying to make his way back into the US.

You've seen this movie before, no doubt.  The pressure cooker of people trapped by uncontrollable circumstance into a space they can't escape from, in this case a modest hotel with a hurricane beating down upon them.  Cops coming and going, and everyone needing to behave as if nothing is wrong.    Heck, one of Bogart's break-out roles was in The Petrified Forest where he was in Robinson role, a gangster holding a gun on noble, simple folk.

But the movie is effective.  You can attribute much of the success to the name talent in the cast, including Claire Trevor and Barrymore (more on Trevor in a moment), but Huston's direction is spot on, moment by moment.  The timing, the blocking, the camera placement and movement all contribute and its here where we separate the big guns from the rest.  Huston also gets a writing credit, and with the sort of investment you see in the movie, of every aspect of it working, its not too surprising he had that kind of investment from start to finish.

At the core of the movie is the question of what kind of man is Frank McCloud?  It's clear he did as well as one could during the war and in the hardfought land battles of Italy, losing friends and allies.  But now he wants as simple a life as possible, and he's done his time fighting the Mussolini's and other power-hungry thugs, and maybe understands Rocco better than anyone else, certainly more than Rocco even understands himself.

For Bacall getting top billing (and she is Bacall, and therefore phenomenal), Claire Trevor does a lot of the heavy lifting, acting-wise, in the movie.  As a former girlfriend of Rocco, she's been called down to Florida to "welcome him back", but in the years since he left her, she's drowned herself in a bottle.  There's a curiously heartbreaking scene that reflects back on all the players as Rocco asks Trevor's "Gaye Dawn" to sing her old hit, and she forces her way through it as the gangsters realize things have changed, things have soured.

I dunno.  It's weird.  Nobody ever talks about Claire Trevor, but I've seen her in a few things now, and she's always very good.

Bacall plays the war widow, Frank's friend's wife left in her husband's hotel in her husband's hometown.  She knows little of what happened, or of Frank.  It's really the scenes with Robinson, some fairly dark stuff even for the genre and time, where she reveals herself and what she's made of.  As always with Bacall, tougher than she looks, smarter than everyone in the room.

It would be remiss to not mention the Native American subplot for a few reasons.  Firstly, one of two guys of focus from the storyline is Jay Silverheels, who you know better as Tonto from the Lone Ranger TV show.  Which shouldn't be a distraction, but... Tonto, y'all.  It's like seeing George Reeves randomly show up in movies.  Always a treat.  Secondly, the Native Americans are treated like humans by the protagonists, even as their status is clearly different from the locals, it's clear there's no small amount of affection and mutual respect, and when things get mixed up, its treated as a human tragedy.  All of which is interesting as Huston was never exactly John Ford in his approach.

I usually try to sort out how we're defining a movie as "noir", so we can all come to a common understanding of the term and not just think it means Sam Spade movies.  In general, I now think of it as movies where a common-man is pulled into usually deadly circumstances beyond their control due to some flaw, some personal weakness or curiosity they shouldn't have pursued.  And most of that works here, but it works for Rocco as well as McCloud, Rocco and his hubris and taste for power drawing him into a situation beyond his usual control, and McCloud's desire to not engage with the power mad, knowing the cost of doing so.

It's a hell of a movie, and it's worth the two hours.

Anyway, Key Largo.

1 comment:

picky said...

I watched this for the first time since I was a kid about five years ago. I compiled a list from several "top noir" lists and got three a week from Netflix. It was super fun, and I highly recommend such a concentrated watch. This one definitely stood out, for many of the reasons you mention. And yeah, I love Claire Trevor. She's great in everything I've seen her in, and I mean...STAGECOACH. Does it get better?