Key Largo (1948)
Key Largo (1948)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: July 31st, 1948 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: John Huston Actors: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, Thomas Gomez, Harry Lewis, John Rodney, Marc Lawrence, Dan Seymour, Monte Blue, William Haade




ey Largo is the largest of the Florida Keys, a string of small islands held together by a concrete causeway. A bus headed away from Key West is stopped by the authorities, who are looking for two escaped Indian convicts. One of the passengers, Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), arrives at the Largo Hotel, only to find that the man he wished to meet (the father of one of his subordinates in the army) isn’t there, while a motley assortment of patrons at the bar refuse to entertain him. “In the summertime, everything’s closed.”

The fourth theatrical pairing of Bogey and Bacall features Dan Seymour yet again, this time as an unfriendly bartender. Lush Miss Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) demands that the barman serve McCloud a drink, which leads to the discovery of Mr. James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his daughter Nora (Lauren Bacall) out back by the dock – the owners the major was planning to see. McCloud is put up in a room, though the combination of the unforgiving heat, an oncoming hurricane, and the collection of belligerent guests doesn’t put him at ease. After discussing the death of Nora’s husband, George, and his heroism during the War, the Frank uncomfortably uncovers the true reason everyone at the hotel is on edge.

The touching tale of George’s passing is entirely in contrast to the coming events. Aside from a few genial Indians (as they’re referred to in the film), including the two on the run from the law, the combative assemblage in the hotel seems capable of virtually anything – such as spontaneous murder. And the film indeed wanders down that path when Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) turns up – yet another unsociable guest reclining in a room upstairs. He’s one of the country’s most notorious gangsters, formerly deported but now back in the States for a final gig, which should go smoothly as long as McCloud and the Temples stay out of his way.

With guns waving around, a storm cutting off the potential for rescue, and Rocco’s goons infuriating the hostages, it’s going to be a long, tension-filled night. Serving as a cinematic opposite to “To Have and Have Not,” “Key Largo” deftly examines bravery, self-preservation, and doing the right thing, but with the twist of reluctant heroism. It may not be the first picture to pit a villain who doesn’t fight fair against a conflicted protagonist, but it’s a perfect bit of film noir aggravation for audiences to feel as trapped as the leads. “Better to be a live coward than a dead hero.”

The real stars of the film are mind games and manipulation, sharply brought to life by the restrained verbal feuding between Bogart and Robinson. There’s contention but also a certain respect – for power and for defiance – like in “The Tall T.” Here, the non-gangsters are all victims, many of whom buckle under the psychological tortures inflicted by Rocco for a bit of amusement. Humiliation and endurance alternate for the spotlight, allowing viewers to judge the righteousness or recklessness of Bogie’s hapless soldier. And the tropical island and destructive storm provide unique backdrops for the ultimatums and confrontations taking place inside the makeshift prison, as well as for thoughts of fleeing or fighting. The finale keeps up the anxiety and the feeling of being cornered, while also turning the tables to accommodate both redemption and justice; for a film that famously didn’t have an ending planned out (the conclusion here is borrowed from the un-filmed close of “To Have and Have Not”), “Key Largo” certainly brandishes a whopper.

– Mike Massie

  • 9/10