Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Forty-One

41 key

#41 — Key Largo (John Huston, 1948)

I typically put John Huston in the category of classic Hollywood directors whose excellence is best measured by their absolutely command of craft. As the vocabulary of classic narrative was still being shaped, Huston was one of those in the cinematic blacksmith shop, swinging his mallet at the glowing red steel. Unlike some of his immediate predecessors (and rough contemporaries) on this timeline — John Ford and Howard Hawks are the two who immediately come to mind — Huston embedded a slightly shiftier personality into his art. He had a flair for the torrid that put him slightly out of step with the chaste times in which his career began. He didn’t overtly play around with double entendres or otherwise try to stealthily shuffle his fictions past the various censors employed by the industry, but some of his best films are infused with a sweaty anxiousness, a prevailing sense that everything can get so much uglier so quickly. These films teeter right on the cusp of what’s prohibited, constantly threatening to topple in.

Adapted from a stage play by Maxwell Anderson, introduced in 1939, Key Largo is a splendid example of Huston’s ability to twist drama into the woozily discombobulating, as if the celluloid itself is suffering from a fever edging ever upward. The film places a batch of raggedy souls together in a hotel located in the Florida Keys. A hurricane is bearing down on the island, which is trouble enough. Then it’s revealed that a mysterious guest of the establishment is the vicious gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), and the raging weather outside doesn’t make him any more solicitous to his fellow travelers. The film becomes an ingenious exercise in ratcheting up the tension, with Rocco persecuting the others as he waits for one of his shady dealings to commence, the rising winds roughly equivalent to building rapidity of everyone’s collective pulse. Huston’s pinpoint command of telling a story is invaluable, but he brings additional craftiness to the picture, most notably with tracking shots that snake through the hotel, greatly mitigating any stagebound quality without eliminating the claustrophobic confinement which is, after all, one of the narrative’s most distinctive strengths.

And then there are the two stars of the film, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Though the married couple are forever embedded in film history as one of the most iconic screen pairings — surely second only to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy — they were only in four movies together, all of them released within a five year span. Key Largo was the final one. While it may lack some of the astounding spark of the first films together, their tandem work reflects an ease and comfort that is just as satisfying. They play off of one another with keen certainty, a belief in the safety provided by the collaboration. Robinson gives the film’s best performance, bringing surprising nuance and intricate shading to a role that could have easily been little more than a blustering thug and still been effective, but its Bogart and Bacall that give Key Largo its touch of added soul. As Huston masters the tactics of the film, his primary players give it a marvelous inner life. Of course, the contribution of Bogart and Bacall owes something to Huston’s artistry, too. Among the director’s many gifts was a well-developed instinct to know exactly how to take advantage of what was in front of him as he peered through the lens.

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