Returning WW2 vet fights gangsters on the Florida keys
The director of Key Largo, John Huston, co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Brooks, from a play by Maxwell Anderson. The stage origins of the film are evident, but this strengthens the atmosphere of claustrophobia as the action is played out inside a seaside guest-house boarded-up against a hurricane.
The cast is particularly strong with Humphrey Bogart as the war vet, Edward G. Robinson as the over-the-hill gangster Johnny Rocco staging a comeback, with Claire Trevor as his alcoholic mole and Thomas Gomez as Rocco’s No.2, and Lauren Bacall as a young war widow with the legendary Lionel Barrymore as her father-in-law. Trevor deservedly won a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her role.
For some the returning war vet theme gives the movie a film noir quality – even though the action takes place in a non-noir locale and there is no cross-over between the good guys and the bad guys. I feel the picture is essentially a good-triumphs-over-evil tale laced with a swan-song for the gangster flick and leavened with post-war existentialist angst.
Bogart’s vet, Frank McLoud, shares the angst of post-war Europe, where many returning to the peace with expectations of a better world that would justify the suffering and destruction, are confronted with the reality that nothing has changed. Disillusioned and bitter, the moral absolutism that underpinned their sacrifice dissolves into a weary relativism where one less Johnny Rocco is not worth dying for.
The climax and resolution of the story complete with a non-noir ending, also give little support to the view that Key Largo is a film noir. As the final scene hits the screen, it is the strength of family and the selfless pursuit of established values that destroy evil, with the existential anti-hero morphing into a hero of the classic mold. As McLoud says: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”