by Jay Seaver
"Key Largo" was one of four movies Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall did together, and as such it's tempting to make them the central focus of the review. But I've already written a couple bits about them recently, so let's talk about Edward G. Robinson.If you compare stars of yesteryear to those of today, Edward G. Robinson might be said to be his era's Christopher Walken. He was ubiquitous, showing up in a lot of supporting roles. He had an instantly recognizable voice, look, and persona that he carried between films, so that when he showed up, it didn't take more than a few moments to know what this guy was about. He played a lot of bad guys, and bounced freely between A and B movies. He was a famous enough name to be prominently displayed on the poster, but his presence alone probably didn't put a lot of butts in seats. People were glad to see him more than they went looking for him.
"Edward G. Robinson was the man."
People are still glad to see him. In Key Largo, he plays Johnny Rocco, a big time New York gangster who, after a few years exiled in Cuba, is returning to the States in a big way with a bunch of counterfeit money. He's made special arrangements to use a hotel on the titular island during the off-season, but his plan doesn't take into account two factors: A massive hurricane about to hammer the Florida Keys, a police manhunt for two Native American escaped convicts, and Frank McCloud (Bogart), a WWII vet coming to meet the family of his killed-in-action war buddy: Wheelchair-bound father James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) owns the hotel, and widow Nora (Bacall) lives and works with him. He's got his favorite moll and a quartet of enforcers with him, and that should be enough to hold tight until the deal is done, but maybe it won't...
Robinson has scenery to chew here, and he launches into his role with gusto. Johnny Rocco's been the top dog for too long to even consider failure, even though his situation is obviously reduced - his goons are idlers, and lover Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) is getting a bit past her prime. Robinson has a different attack when nature's fury throws the situation out of his control, still blustering but with enough nervousness to clearly expose him as a coward. He and director John Huston use Robinson's his girth to indicate power and powerlessness in turns, and his delivery is a combined sneer and growl.
Of course, this isn't really Robinson's movie, even if his is the most outsize performance. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall are, after all, both around. Compared to some of their other collaborations, there's less of a spark here. She is, after all, playing the widow of his comrade-at-arms, and the sort of immediate, can-you-top-this flirting of To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep would be inappropriate. Bogart carries survivor's guilt in his initial interactions, despite how quickly the Temples warm to his character. The war has drained this man. Bacall and Barrymore play less conflicted roles; Bacall's Nora is tense but has faith in Frank; it's nice to see that their chemistry holds even when it's not primarily sexual or romantic. Barrymore's role can be summed up with "if I wasn't stuck in this chair..." He's impotently righteous, not only expressing his disdain for the gangsters at every moment, but wanting to shelter the local Indians during the storm (he's described as having been a friend to them when many others aren't) and acting as a father figure to the forlorn Bogart. Barrymore sells us on Temple's rectitude, making us believe in his strength despite his physical weakness.
Director John Huston adapts a play by Maxwell Anderson, and even though the majority does take place on the hotel's ground floor to give some feeling of being claustrophobic and trapped, but it's a large enough set to keep things from looking too monotonous. He also gets outside and onto the water for the action climax, and some nice-looking exteriors before the hurricane hits. It's probably easier to show some destruction if the set doesn't have to be rebuilt every night, too."Key Largo" is perhaps not as much fun as some of the other movies to pair Bogart & Bacall, but that's okay with Robinson walking off with every scene he's got. And, hey, who doesn't love Edward G. Robinson?
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=13804&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/16/06 16:23:50