Ever since I started watching the great Hollywood classics to help hone my aesthetic as a beginning photographer, I remember certain performances, certain stars pique my interest more than the usual. They display a certain electricity, a certain manner, an “X Factor”, style, or, je ne sais quoi on screen that so eludes description but completely arrests one’s mind, attention, and emotions, riveted to their work. Indeed, we can’t look away, and many times we may struggle to figure out exactly why.
I am reminded particularly here of certain players’ performances that were really watershed moments for me at the movies: Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s macabre epic M (1931); Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart as star-crossed lovers in Casablanca (1942); Robert Mitchum as the laconic, epitome-of-cool Jeff Bailey in Out of the Past (1947); Gloria Swanson bringing to life the decaying dreams of Norma Desmond in Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950); Orson Welles as the corrupt sheriff Hank Quinlan in 1958’s Touch of Evil; Anthony Perkins as mother-obsessed Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho(1960); Sidney Poitier as the indomitable Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1967): there are so many that could be cited in the wonderful history of Hollywood and cinema as a powerful, earth-shaking artistic medium.
Truly great artists carry this quintessential gravitas over a number of roles. Undoubtedly, the first performance that really crossed that threshold for me, and gave me a lifelong fascination with the players involved, was seeing Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in (my favorite film noir) Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep (1946). Their chemistry was so… natural. So perfect — likely because it was a very real off-screen chemistry between the two stars. It was the most exquisite interplay of equally matched players I have ever seen: Bacall the witty beauty, Bogie the paradigm of cool.
I will be treating The Big Sleep in Pt. 2 of the saga of Bogie and Bacall. Yes, this look at the quintessential, immortal Hollywood couple is being done slightly out of order: with it being one year since Hurricane Irma barreled down on the state of Florida, and Hurricane Harvey in Texas, I thought, what better film to treat then the couple’s last project together on-screen, John Huston’s look at a group of mismatched people caught in a hotel in the Florida keys during a hurricane with a mobster? Yes I am talking about 1948’s Key Largo, the reason for Key Largo, Florida’s yearly Bogart Film Festival — since the hurricanes, the Festival is looking at relocating.
Key Largo sees Bogie as world-weary soldier Frank McCloud, making a stop at his war buddy’s hotel in Key Largo, FL after his friend died a hero in the Italian Theater of WWII, particularly the Battle of San Pietro (John Huston actually produced a war-time documentary on this battle that you can watch below: the description given in the movie is fairly accurate). The hotel is now run by his wheel-chair bound father James Temple (played by a very much crippled by arthritis in reality, Lionel Barrymore) and his daughter-in-law Nora Temple (brought to marvelous reality by Lauren Bacall).
McCloud has experience as a sailor, as Bogie did in real-life. In fact his boat, the Santana (once owned by Dick Powell), is used in the climactic final scene of Key Largo. Yet, he ultimately ends up getting stuck in the Temples’ hotel by a hurricane that is barreling down on the keys when he rolls in to town. Still, he does not quite reckon who exactly he is stuck in the hotel with quite yet.
The hurricane depicted fictionally in Key Largo (principally in a talk from the elder Mr. Temple) was based on the very real hurricane of 1935 that devastated Matacumbe Key. Many of those who died in the blitz attack “laid to Act of God” were WWI veterans building the first stretches of what would soon become US Highway 1. The hurricane was one of the first Category 5’s to devastate the modern Florida Keys.
Bogie and Bacall’s on-screen performances really heat up with the stinging Florida humidity and hurricane force weather outside, when Edward G. Robinson’s chilling depiction of gangster Johnny Rocco (a composite of Lucky Luciano and Al Capone) comes into sharper focus. Robinson is truly chilling as the maniac Rocco, doing whatever he can to escape the keys and get to relative safety in Miami: the question is, how much destruction will be wrought in his wake? Who will he take with him?
A further truly powerful force in the film is Claire Trevor as the boozing, morally ambiguous girlfriend of Johnny Rocco. Her powerful acapella scene was done with little prompting from director Huston, and much to Trevor’s chagrin, but ultimately to wonderful dramatic results: Huston eliciting the intended portrayal of the scene from the actress. See the scene below.
How will it all end? Key Largo sizzles in the Florida humidity, principally from a plethora of powerful performances, infused with an incredible realism (especially the real relationship of Bogie and Bacall), and a very deft story-telling hand from John Huston. It is a noir that never gets old.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer” in “movies”, “mental health” and “culture” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.