The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Key Largo (1948) Classic Movie Review 40

Key Largo (1948)

Key Largo (1948)

After living in the USA for more than thirty-five years they called me an undesirable alien. Me. Johnny Rocco. Like I was a dirty Red or something!

Key Largo (1948) is a great Bogie-Becall film. Featuring a cast of villains, a hurricane, and isolated Florida hotel, this movie will keep you on the edge of your seat until the final shot.

Today we are looking at another pairing of Bogie and Becall. Episode 40 is the wonderful film  Key Largo (1948). Not only having a cast of great actors, this movie also had the benefit of John Huston as the director. So I will jump right into  Key Largo (1948)

Humphrey Bogart plays soldier Frank McCloud. Bogart was covered in Episode 50 – Sahara (1943).

Edward G. Robinson was great as gangster Johnny Rocco. Robinson was covered in Episode 35 – The Violent Men (1955).

Lauren Bacall played Nora Temple. Bacall was covered in Episode – 39 – Dark Passage (1947).

Lionel Barrymore played the role of Key Largo Inn owner James Temple. Lionel Barrymore was born in 1878 Philadelphia. By the turn of the century, he was acting with his family on Broadway. Through the first part of the 20th century, he acted in the US and abroad. Barrymore started directing shorts and his first full-length silent film was Life’s Whirlpool (1917) featured his famous sister Ethel. In 1926 he joined MGM. He worked as a director for talkies and as a character and bit lead.

With the advent of talkies, his stage training came into play. He continued to direct such films as His Glorious Night (1929) and Madame X (1929). He acted in many films for MGM including A Free Soul (1931) that got him the best actor Oscar, Rasputin and the Empress (1932) as Rasputin, Grand Hotel (1932), and Dinner at Eight (1933).

Some of Barrymore’s greatest work was when MGM lent him to other studios. He appeared with Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson (1928), D.W. Griffith’s Drums of Love (1928), You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) directed by Frank Capra, for David O. Selznick in Duel in the Sun (1946), and of course with John Huston for Key Largo (1948). Barrymore may be known to modern audiences as mean old Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), I’m a little partial to On Borrowed Time (1939) where Barrymore’s character traps death in the top of an apple tree to protect the interest of his grandson.

In the 30s and 40s, he had recurring roles as Doctor Gillespie in the Doctor Kildare movies. By this point, he had already broken his hip twice and was suffering from arthritis. After Captains Courageous (1938), he played all of his roles in a wheelchair. His last movie was the musical comedy Main Street to Broadway (1953) and he died the following year at the age of 76.

Claire Trevor drunken gun moll Gaye Dawn. Claire Trevor was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1910. I’m seeing a trend. She became interested in acting and attended Columbia University. She also attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. By 1930, she was working professionally on the stage debuting on Broadway in 1932.

Her first film was a western, Life in the Raw (1933). Before she was typecast as the hardened women many of her earlier roles were diverse and showed her considerable talent. One of her earlier standout roles was in Dante’s Inferno (1935) with Spencer Tracy. Another role was as a good girl forced into prostitution in Dead End (1937) with Humphrey Bogart. Claire was cast as downtrodden saloon girl Dallas in the John Ford epic Stagecoach (1939). Her pair with John Wayne was on fire and this movie turned Wayne into a star.

In the 40s she found her place and that in film noir. She started out playing a killer in Street of Chance (1942) with Burgess Meredith, she played Mrs. Grayle in a Philip Marlowe PI film Murder, My Sweet (1944), and then as the besotted ex-nightclub singer and failed gun moll in Key Largo (1948). She won an Oscar for this role. Claire was again paired with John Wayne in The High and the Mighty (1954). After that, it was television and stage work. Her final film was Kiss Me Goodbye (1982) as Sally Field’s mother. She retired to California and promoted the performing arts. Claire passed in 2000 at the age of 90.

Marc Lawrence was cast in the role of gangster Ziggy. Born in the Bronx, I’m seeing a pattern, Lawrence studied in high school and at City College. After working in theater Lawrence was given a contract with Columbia Pictures. His dark and scared face made him a natural for playing gangsters and that is what he did until after WWII. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he confirmed that he had been a member of the Communist Party. He named names and was blacklisted. He left for Europe and worked in film until the US regained its sense and he returned to Hollywood and the roles he was born to play. He died in 2005 at the age of 95.

Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco makes a comment about HUAC: After living in the USA for more than thirty-five years they called me an undesirable alien. Me. Johnny Rocco. Like I was a dirty Red or something!
Kind of ironic that a member of the cast would be driven out as a communist following the film.

Monte Blue was cast as Sheriff Ben Wade. Monte Blue was born in 1887 but ended up in an orphanage after his father died. Big and strong he was a railroader, a fireman, a coal miner, a cowpuncher, a ranch hand, a circus rider, a lumberjack and, finally, trekking west, he became a day laborer for D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios.

Work as a stuntman Blue got a role as an extra The Birth of a Nation (1915). Working with Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille he got increasing larger roles earning his big break as Danton in Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921) with Lillian and Dorothy Gish. He was a romantic star but he lost most of his money in the 1929 stock market crash. In the 1930s, he was back to bit roles, although his old friends kept him working. Before he died in 1963, he was working for a circus.

Pat Flaherty had a very small uncredited role as The Traveler. His story is so great I had to share it with you. He served in Mexican border wars against Pancho Villa in 1916. In WWI, he served as a flying officer. After the war, he played minor league baseball and in 1923 began playing football for the Chicago Bears.

After he was done with sports he went to New York where he became successful as a music publisher. Next, he married Dorothea X. Fugazy, great name, who was the daughter of a famous boxing promoter. In 1930, h moved to Hollywood to work as a producer for Fox Films. However, the great depression had other plans. With no job producing, he turned to acting. He had over 200 film and television appearances in his career playing mostly small tough guy parts like cops and bosses. One of his earlier roles was as a detective in A Day at the Races (1937), with the Marx brothers.

He was also a technical advisor on baseball movies and taught Gary Cooper to pitch for his role in The Pride of the Yankees (1942). I am partial to him in the role of the junkman in The Best Years of Our Life (1946) where he gave Fred Dairy (Dana Andrews) the break he needed to get his life back on track. If that wasn’t enough in World War II he was commissioned as a Marine Corp officer and served in Korea being discharged with the rank of Major.

Jay Silverheels had an uncredited part as Tom Osceola one of the two escaped Indians. Silverheels was born in Canada. He was a lacrosse player and a boxer before he became a film stuntman in 1938. He worked in several films before Key Largo (1938) but he was noticed in his small part and was cast in the Cowboys and the Indians (1939). Also in this movie was a fellow named Clayton Moore. Later that year Silverheels was cast to play Tonto in The Lone Ranger series (1949-1957). Silverheels was in two movies where he played Tonto, The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958). When the series ended Silverheels was hopelessly typecast as Tonto. He became a spokesman for the portrayal of Native Americans in media.


The film starts with an aerial shot of the Florida Keys. The text says – At the southernmost point of the United States are the Florida Keys, a string of small islands held together by a concrete causeway. Largest of these remote coral islands is Key Largo.

Sheriff Ben Wade (Monte Blue) pulls over a bus driving across one of the key bridges. Wade tells the drive that they are looking for a couple of Indians that broke out of jail. He describes them as young bucks in fancy shirts. Sounds like an FSU game. Deputy Clyde Sawyer (John Rodney) walks through the bus looking for the pair. After the police leave the bus driver tells Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) that the Indians always head for home. McCloud says “Home being Key Largo.” Is this McCloud looking for the home he doesn’t have?

The bus drops Frank at the Largo Hotel. A man we later find out is Toots (Harry Lewis) is reading a paper in the lobby. Frank rings the bell and asks for the owner Mr. Temple. Toots tells Frank that the hotel is closed, and he doesn’t know when Mr. Temple will be back. Frank walks into the hotel bar to find a woman and some men listening to the radio. Franks asks for a drink and the man behind the bar and Toots tell him again that the hotel is closed. The woman insists that he be given a drink and the man behind the bar gives him one.

When Frank sits by the woman he sees she is drunk out of her gourd. She is listening to horse racing on the radio and checking her race form. A buzzer behind the bar goes off and the man behind the bar hands a drink to Toots. The women volunteers to take the drink up but the man says he will send for you when he wants you. The man behind the bar is Angel (Dan Seymour) and the woman requests another drink for Frank. When the women ask Frank his name and he gives her his name and pedigree like a thoroughbred racehorse. She introduces herself as Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor). Gaye Dawn is such a happy name for such a sad lady. When Toots returns he tells Gaye that he is ready for you now. She staggers across the lobby as she tries to fix her makeup.

The men tell Frank again that the hotel is closed. He asks why they are they and they say by special arrangement. When Frank says he does not want to stay and only needs to see Mr. Temple. The men tell Frank that Temple is at the boathouse.

Out on the dock, Frank meets James Temple (Lionel Barrymore). Temple is in a wheelchair. When Frank introduces him Temple calls for his daughter Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall). Temple introduces Nora as George’s wife and Frank tells them that he served with her husband in WWII Italy. They have a little small talk and Franks says he knows all about the keys from George the dead husband of Nora. Temple coerces Frank into staying the night in George’s old room.

When Nora heads back to the hotel she sees Sheriff Wade and Deputy Sawyer. The police ask Temple if he has seen the Osceola brothers. He says he has not but says he has sent word for them to turn themselves into the police. Temple tells Frank that the two brothers grew up with George and were good people who get drunk and tear stuff up.

Back inside Temple introduces the men to Frank and tells of Frank being his son’s commander in Italy when he was killed. Suddenly a commotion breaks out upstairs. The third man from the bar shoves Gaye into a room. When Nora ask the man why he hit her the man says she’s a drunk and that’s the only thing that stops her.

Nora tells Frank his room is ready and the pair goes up. She tells him the third man was “Curly” Hoff (Thomas Gomez) and that he and Gaye have been there about a week. She and Mr. Temple told them the hotel was closed but they d so much money that they let them stay. Nora tells that about 4 days back Mr. Brown and the other men arrived by boat. Nora tells him that Brown only comes out at night and he must be rich because the others jump at his command. They expect the whole group to leave in a day or two.

After Nora leaves Curly comes in and apologized for the rough treatment of Gaye. He says they have been planning a fishing trip and one guy ruined it by bringing a lush along. Frank is not happy with the way she was treated. Nora takes a phone call that lets them know a hurricane is coming.

Nora, Frank, and Temple meet again and talk about George and the place he is buried. Frank and Nora head outside to secure the boats before the storm hits. Nora questions Frank about his visit and he tells her he is thinking about settling down in the keys. Curly shows up and introduces Ralph Feeney (William Haade) another member of their group.

Frank drops the line that his first sweetheart was a boat. When they are done a Native American family arrives in some small boats. Nora tells Frank that the Indians often stay at the hotel during storms. In the boats are the fugitive Osceola brothers Tom (Jay Silverheels) and John (Rodd Redwing). The brothers say they want to give themselves up and Nora sends them to see Temple.

Nora and Frank head back to the hotel as the wind starts blowing. She starts prepping the insides. Some of the men are already nervous about the coming storm. Curly again tries to make nice with Frank but no chance.

Temple brings the Osceola brothers to the lobby and although there is police car outside they can’t find the sheriff. The phone rings and Curly tells everyone not to answer it and he picks it up. He tells the caller that Nora and Temple are not there and if deputy Sawyer shows up they will call back. When Nora tries to get the phone Curly snatches it away and Frank moves in. Both Curly and Toots pull out guns.

The scene then switches to a man in a tub Mr. Brown (Edward G. Robinson) smoking a cigar and drinking a drink. Curly comes in and we pray they don’t show Edward G. Robinson naked. He tells about the gunplay and the phone call was the sheriff looking for Deputy Sawyer. They then show the bleeding Sawyer laying in the bed having been jumped by the gang while looking for the Indian brothers.

Temple calls the gang down and he is giving them hell. He has no fear of death but puts all the others in danger of being killed as well. He says he’ll be gone in a couple of hours. Then Sawyer staggers out of the bedroom. Frank recognizes Mr. Brown as gangster John Rocco. Rocco is an amalgamation of Al Capone who retired to Florida before dying of syphilis and Lucky Luciano who was deported from the US but moved to Cuba.

As Temple insults Rocco more, Frank plays him up and appeals to his vanity. Frank is really saving their lives. Rocco starts toying with Temple and Temple falls out of the wheelchair. Nora claws Rocco’s face but he twists her arm behind her back and kisses her. Rocco gets a call from Miami and tension is relieved. Curly also tells Rocco that there are some Indians on the porch but Rocco won’t give them shelter from the storm. Rocco tells Ziggy on the phone that it has to be tonight during the storm. Rocco’s Cuban boat captain (Alberto Morin) says he needs to move the boat to deeper waters during the storm. Rocco says he will kill him if he moves the boat.

At the same time, Sawyer is telling the others that he came to look for the Indians and when he went to call Sheriff Wade he was knocked out. Rocco comes in and tells his gang that everything is set for the night. Rocco caterwauls about how the bought Florida politicians turned their back on him. This line was incorrectly cited during the 2000 Florida recount. Rocco then sees Nora in the mirror and start calling her a wildcat like another he knew named Maggie Mooney who now goes by Gaye Dawn. Rocco whispers in Nora’s ear and she is disguised by his words. He does it again and she spits in his face. Rocco gets so mad he is about to kill Nora. Again Frank appeals to his ego and says he will have to kill everyone if he kills the girl.

Gaye comes back looking a little better but is only interested in getting a drink. Rocco has ordered Angel not to give her any more drinks. When Rocco comes in the room she sees the scratches and knows what has happened. Rocco starts verbally sparring with Frank, the only one near his equal in the room. Rocco gives a pistol to Frank and levels another gun at Frank’s midsection. Rocco says you can get rid of Rocco but you have to die for it. After being egged on Frank throws the gun down and says “one Rocco, more or less, isn’t worth dying for.” Temple ask for the gun and Rocco says no “One old man more or less isn’t worth dying for.”

Sawyer leaps for the gun and begins to leave the room holding the gun on the gang. As he gets to the door Rocco fires and Sawyer pulls the trigger on an empty gun. Nora thinks Frank is a coward.

Curly and Angel row out to sea and dump Sawyer’s weighted body. Ziggy calls and he hasn’t left Miami. Rocco gives him a deadline. The storm knocks out the power and Toots forces everyone downstairs. Gaye is still trying to get a drink. Gaye fixes a drink and Rocco pours it out. When Rocco complains about her being a lush she reminds him that he gave her her first drink. Then he starts talking about what she was like in the past and says he will give her a drink if she sings Billie Holiday’s song “Moanin’ Low.” She sings pretty bad and Rocco won’t let her have a drink. Frank pours her a drink and when he gives it to her Rocco slaps him three times. Frank just looks at Gaye and replies you welcome to her thank you.

The storm hits its peak and the house starts shaking and moaning. When Rocco gets nervous Temples starts laying it on about the 1935 hurricane where 800 were killed. In reality, the 1935 Labor Day hurricane is still the strongest to ever hit the US and killed about 423 people. It also blew a train off the tracks. Rocco is really shaken and Frank’s face shows that he now has the advantage.

Frank asks why Rocco doesn’t show the storm his gun. Temple starts praying for a wave to kill them all. Rocco pulls his gun on Temple, but Frank steps in and Rocco puts the gun to Frank’s belly and pulls the trigger. However, it is still unloaded. A tree crashes through the window again breaking off the tension.

As they are waiting for the storm to end Nora ask if she will see Frank again and Temple says they consider him family. Toots comes running in to tell that the boat has left. Rocco doesn’t skip a beat and says Frank will drive them to Cuba in the smaller Santana, which happened to be the name of Bogart’s sailboat.

The Osceola brothers push into the door and scream at Temple for not letting the Indian family inside. Frank agrees to take Rocco and crew rather than be beaten by Toots. There is a knock on the door and Sheriff Wade comes in and says he is looking for Sawyer. They all deny, some willingly and some under duress, of having seen Sawyer or the Osceola’s. Wade knows Sawyer called from the hotel and is suspicious. He goes to his car and sees Sawyer’s body washed up into the road. Rocco comes out and lays the crime at the feet of the Indians. The sheriff sees the pair and shoots them as they flee.

The Sheriff is seeing red. He blames Temple for the three deaths and says he will be charged. Wade starts questions the gang and by now Frank is getting fighting mad. Ziggy’s gang shows up and the first one to enter pretends to be a tourist played by Pat Flaherty. Ziggy (Marc Lawrence) comes in and after reliving old times exchange a large amount of counterfeit money for a smaller amount of real money. Ziggy and his gang leave going north.

Gaye and Nora tell Frank to run away in the dark because Rocco will kill him when they get to Cuba. As the gang and Frank start to head for the boat Gaye wants to know why her bags are not being loaded. Rocco tells her she is not going and says here is enough money to stay drunk for a long time. Gaye jumps on Rocco begging and pleading to be taken along. When he pushes her aside we see that she has taken Rocco’s gun, now loaded, and slipped it to Frank.

Frank heads to boat towards Cuba in a fog as Toots sits in the back sick as a dog. Rocco, Angel, and Curly are below deck. Ralph is by Toots. Frank asks Ralph to look over the back for kelp. He guns the boat throwing Ralph overboard. Toots rise to shoot and Frank shots first but Toots gets off one round hitting Frank in the side. As Frank retrieves Toots’ gun Curly comes up but Frank shoots him as he comes up the steps. Frank climbs up to the top of the boat and looks down through the opening.

Rocco tries to force Angel to go up but he won’t so Rocco shoots him. Rocco goes through the bargaining steps with Frank calling him soldier over and over. You can have half of the money, all of the money, more money, and then I’m throwing my gun out. Rocco throws one of the two guns he has out and then comes up. Franks shots him from above. It takes three shots to end Rocco. Rocco was just like the storm strong for awhile and then burning out.

I have always had a problem with the gunfight on the boat. It’s clearly shot on a sound stage and suffers from this look. John Huston didn’t have a convincing end for the script Howard Hawks gave him the shootout on a boat that occurs near the end of the film. Hawks had wanted to include it in To Have and Have Not (1944) but could not make it fit. However, it tied everything up nicely in Key Largo. Recently I have become less critical of this ending based on a line for The Wrath of Khan (1982). Spock – He is intelligent but lacks experience. His pattern reflects two-dimensional thinking. Kirk – Full stop z- 10000. So in the Key Largo scene, Rocco can’t adapt to Frank’s elevated attack platform.

Gaye has turned states evidence and Ziggy and his gang were captured.

Frank calls the coast guard and Nora. The move ends with Frank heading into his new home and love.

World-Famous Short Summary – Women settles for different soldier after her husband fails to return from war

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Beware the moors

Key Largo (1948)

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