The Oppressive Capture of the Past in ‘Key Largo’

John Huston was a master of adapting books into films, and his 1948 “Key Largo” is no exception to his mastery. Adapted from a 1939 play by Maxwell Anderson, “Key Largo” is an intense film, encompassing several forms. At once film noir, drama, and action, the film revolves around the actions of a gangster, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his gang, who take up a short but brutal residence at Hotel Largo in Key Largo, Florida. Rocco (an amalgam of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano) is waiting for the arrival of the “goods” and “solid merchandise” (counterfeit money) from another crime boss. 

At first, Rocco presents himself as Howard Brown to the hotel owners, Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) and James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), but things don’t go quite as planned. Rocco didn’t count on two things: the arrival of a hurricane and Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart). McCloud is visiting the family of his war buddy, George Temple, who was killed in action. (Nora is George’s widow and James, his father.) McCloud’s intention is to speak to both about George’s heroism, and share some war stories in an effort to give the family some peace about his death. 

As the hurricane hits the island, however, so does Rocco. It is McCloud who recognizes his true identity, and from that point on, Rocco takes McCloud, Nora, and James hostage. Rocco controls everything, including his former lover, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), an alcoholic chanteuse who has long since stopped singing. Now, she is drowning in alcohol.

Bogart and Bacall give extraordinary performances. This would be their final film together, and just as in previous films, such as 1946’s  “The Big Sleep” and 1947’s “Dark Passage,” Bogart and Bacall share a nuanced and erotic intensity. Both were certainly big stars at the time of the movie, but ultimately, it is Edward G. Robinson as Rocco who steals the show. 

Robinson was known for playing gangsters (such as in 1931’s “Little Caesar”). His short and stout build contributed to his frequent casting as an Italian mob boss (even though Robinson was actually Jewish). He played “bad guys” quite well. As Rocco, he is a brutal sadist, who takes pleasure in everyone’s suffering. It’s not ordinary violence by gun or fist that holds Rocco’s intense fascination, however. It is the pleasure he derives from preying on the weakened mental state of his victims.

In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Rocco forbids Gaye to have another drink unless she can sing them a song, like in the old days. Then he’ll give in and let her have one. The audience is made to feel the way she has changed, spiraling from the glory of her singing career where all the lights were focused on her to her current status as just another “lush,” feeling the shakes, and needing her next fix. Dependent, as she is, on Rocco, who makes her feel her station just for kicks. Trevor (famous for her role as the prostitute, Dallas, in John Ford’s 1939 “Stagecoach”) received an Oscar for her role in “Key Largo,” and it’s not hard to see why. 

Gaye is desperate for that drink, so she is willing to humiliate herself by singing. No longer young, her beauty fading, and her voice cracking, the performance falls flat. The melancholy look in her eyes is unbearable. This woman has lost everything, including and especially her dignity. (During the production, Huston didn’t give Trevor time to rehearse the song. She was not a trained singer, and this made Trevor quite nervous, but of course, the result was beautifully and hauntingly natural.)

Rocco is not satisfied with her effort, and refuses to give her a drink. One can assume that Rocco was planning on this being the result from the beginning. Robinson’s performance is brilliant: he feigns goodness and charity, yet we know that he is only humoring Gaye. His real mission is to humiliate her and retain his power over her being

Robinson may have played many “bad guys” but off-screen he was quite the opposite. In fact, everyone knew what a good man he was. Ronald Reagan, for example, said that “Eddie [Robinson] is one of the warmest-hearted, truly kind people in the world . . . ” Unlike the character Johnny Rocco, he was the opposite of uncouth and uncivilized. He spoke many languages, and was a great collector of art. His ability to get inside a character is seen throughout all of his performances during his career.

“Key Largo,” ultimately, is about shifting worlds. Despite the fact that McCloud and Nora are not even remotely part of Rocco’s world, there remains one haunting similarity between them: they all have lost or are losing something. For McCloud, it is the end of war and of an easily grasped day-to-day purpose for his life. He is full of uncertainty about where to go next. He is rootless but his sense of justice is not confused. 

Nora has lost her husband, and James has lost his son. Neither is sure how to cope with that loss, or what their lives might look like in the aftermath.

Gaye laments the loss of her glory days as a singer. She has hit the proverbial rock bottom, and the only thing that she sees clearly are bottles of whiskey.

Even Rocco is not free from loss. He used to be great, he yells at everyone in the claustrophobic hotel. The name of “Johnny Rocco” used to inspire fear in everyone but clearly not anymore. He, too, has been reduced to a pile of historical trash. There is no future for anyone after the shock of war and the relentless passing of time, only pain and loss and loneliness.

It is fitting then that the entire event takes place in Key Largo. All of the characters are removed from their connection to the land, quite literally at sea, but they are also distant from each other and even themselves. Huston creates a claustrophobic view of reality, which none of his characters is willing to accept. The desire to live a life before things changed so dramatically seems to have made its home in everyone’s heart but the oppressive and inevitable nature of time presses against their chests. Freedom is possible but only through the acceptance of the present.

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About Emina Melonic

Emina Melonic is an adjunct fellow of the Center for American Greatness. Originally from Bosnia, a survivor of the Bosnian war and its aftermath of refugee camps, she immigrated to the United States in 1996 and became an American citizen in 2003. She has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. Her writings have appeared in National Review, The Imaginative Conservative, New English Review, The New Criterion, Law and Liberty, The University Bookman, Claremont Review of Books, The American Mind, and Splice Today. She lives near Buffalo, N.Y.

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