Tempest in Key Largo

An all-star cast in an all-time classic.

‘Key Largo’ has one of the most stellar all-star casts in film history. In addition to Bogie and Bacall as the leading man and leading lady, there’s the excellent Claire Trevor, the great Edward G. Robinson and theatrical royalty, Lionel Barrymore. Thomas Gomez, Harry Lewis and Dan Seymour give brilliant performances as Edward G. Robinson’s motley crew of gangsters.

Humphrey Bogart plays Frank McCloud, an army veteran visiting the widow and the father of his late army buddy. Lauren Bacall plays Nora Temple, a widow who runs a hotel in Key Largo with her father in law, James Temple, played by Lionel Barrymore. Edward G. Robinson plays gangster Johnny Rocco whilst Claire Trevor plays Gaye Dawn, an alcoholic singer and old girlfriend of Rocco.

The film is directed by the great John Huston. The action of the film takes place over the course of a day as a hurricane sweeps Key Largo. The hurricane is both a literal and metaphorical tempest.

The beautiful Lauren Bacall in 'Key Largo'.

The beautiful Lauren Bacall in ‘Key Largo’.

There is a pressure cooker environment in ‘Key Largo’ with the character-driven drama coming from the tense atmosphere. In this way, the film is more like a play than a movie. The film explores the philosophical debate of whether it’s worth risking one’s own life for one’s beliefs- a theme which would have resonated deeply with a post-war audience, many of whom had lost family members in the war.

The 'Key Largo' cast.

The ‘Key Largo’ cast.

The film could be seen as an allegory for the McCarthy witch hunt. Bogie and Bacall were amongst the most fervent campaigners against McCarthyism risking their careers by standing up for their beliefs.

The film’s ultimate argument is you should stand up for your beliefs. The film must be seen through the prism of the political climate of the late 40s. However it reasonares strongly today.

Many people such as Frank McCloud fought in the war to uphold human rights such as freedom of speech yet found themselves disillusioned by the prevailing tide of McCarthyism sweeping the country, which vilified anyone with remotely Liberal views.

The film also draws attention to the plight of Native Americans. Two Native American characters in the film, the Osceola brothers, face discrimination and a witch hunt by the police.

Bogie and Bacall with John Huston.

Bogie and Bacall with John Huston.

Edward G. Robinson plays an exiled gangster making his last stand. Edward G. Robinson rose to fame as a star of the 30s gangster movies so ‘Key Largo’ provides him with a fitting return to his film roots. In this role as Johnny Rocco, he represents corruption and the threat this brings to American society, be it criminal or political corruption.

Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Temple portrays a character who is the polor opposite of Johnny Rocco- a caring, fearless individual who embodies the best in the human spirit.

Bogie and Bacall cycling on the Warner Bros. set.

Bogie and Bacall cycling on the Warner Bros. set.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Lauren Bacall an honorary Oscar in 2009 in recognition of ‘her central place in the golden age of motion pictures’. However, despite her prominent place in film history, Bacall’s acting talents have often gone overlooked because of her great beauty and her iconic romance with Humphrey Bogart. When we think of Lauren Bacall we often think of her as a sultry film noir heroine with that incredible husky voice or we think of Bogart and Bacall’s great romance.

Bogie and Bacall with Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor.

Bogie and Bacall with Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor.

Lauren Bacall had a great power on-screen. Ms Bacall was one of the most authoritative actors in cinema. Jonathan Glazer, directing Bacall in ‘Birth’, observed about her acting style; ‘she communicated so much by her silent presence’. This is evident in ‘Key Largo’ where Bacall’s acting is almost a performance art. With subtle expressions and a powerful on-screen presence she could convey great meaning with little dialogue. With just one look, the audience is in no doubt of Bacall’s feelings.

Bogie and Bacall share a laugh.

Bogie and Bacall share a laugh.

Watching Lauren Bacall in her early films, it’s incredible to think of how young she was. Having made her film debut in ‘To Have and Have Not’ at only 19, she was 24 when ‘Key Largo’ was released. For me, Lauren Bacall is a Feminist pioneer in films. Despite her youth in her early films, Bacall always had great authority and gravitas playing strong women.

Bogie and Bacall promo photo.

Bogie and Bacall promo photo.

In a male dominated cast, Lauren Bacall and Claire Trevor portray two very different kinds of women. Claire Trevor delivers an Oscar-winning performance as an alcoholic washed-up gangster’s moll. Trevor expertly walks the tightrope of alcoholism, one minute appearing genteel and ladylike, and the next – willing to debase herself for a drink.

Bacall plays a more mature, grounded character than the femme fatales she had portrayed previously. In ‘Key Largo’ Bacall’s character is sultry meet strength and determination.

Claire Trevor in 'Key Largo'.

Claire Trevor in ‘Key Largo’.

Bogie and Bacall are renowned for having the most electrifying on-screen chemistry in film history. Their cinematic passion in classics, ‘To Have and Have Not’ and ‘The Big Sleep’ is unrivaled. In ‘Key Largo’ Bogie and Bacall have a more mature relationship- this is reflected in their slow burn romance which is based more on common values and affection for each other rather than sexual chemistry. They play two lonely characters who are brought together because of extraordinary circumstances and realise they could fulfill a need in each other.

Bogie plays a soldier who is struggling to find a purpose in his life after the war. Nora’s husband had spoken highly of Frank whilst Frank had great respect for him so this creates a bond between Frank, Nora and Mr. Temple. Nora and Mr.Temple provide Frank with an opportunity to put down roots and settle down with a loving family whilst Frank is the surrogate husband/son figure.

Bogie and Bacall’s characters show great tenderness for each other throughout the film. However, significantly they don’t kiss. Bacall said her and Bogie’s parts were the least interesting characters in the film. I beg to differ as I believe although they are the least showy parts in the film; they are also the most subtle and complex and therefore the most realistic.

Claire Trevor kisses Bogie after he wins his Oscar.

Claire Trevor kisses Bogie after he wins his Oscar.

In contrast to his usual tough guy demeanor Bogart is a more subdued character in ‘Key Largo’. Frank McCloud is a world weary, war veteran. Continuing the character trajectory laid out for him in his most famous roles, Bogart is once again the reluctant hero of the film. Bogie’s characterisation of the reluctant hero makes him more realistic and relatable to the audience. It is much more interesting to see the battle a flawed, complex man fights between his head and his conscience than to see a superhero action-man figure.

Bogie and Bacall in 'Key Largo'

Bogie and Bacall in ‘Key Largo’

I highly recommend ‘Key Largo’ to any film fan. It’s truly one of those must-watch films. Not only do you get to see some of the greatest film actors of all time together in a movie, you get a deep insight into the political climate and the philosophical debates of the time. The film is especially interesting for Lauren Bacall fans as the great lady gives one of her best performances.

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4 thoughts on “Tempest in Key Largo

  1. “With subtle expressions and a powerful on-screen presence she could convey great meaning with little dialogue.” Very well said. Lauren Bacall would have done well in silent movies, but then we would have been deprived of her wonderful voice. Nice essay.

    • Thank you very much Joe for your lovely comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the essay. That is an excellent point you make- Bacall would have been superb in silent pictures. True, Bacall’s voice is one of the most captivating and iconic in film history.

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