Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is through being a soldier. He’s settled into his new life as a drifter, moving from place to place in search of the odd jobs that finance his food, drink, lodging and cigarettes. Frank wants to put the war behind him, wants to make a career of laying low. But a bit of wrong-place/wrong-time bad luck forces his hand and drums into his head what he’s worked so hard to ignore: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.”
Bogart always could take a simple, unassuming line and give it the weary ring of gospel truth. His finest performances spring from characters who fail to bridge the gap between who they want to be and who they really are. In John Huston’s tense thriller “Key Largo,” Bogart’s tired but resilient ex-soldier is not alone in his ambivalence. The Key Largo hotel Frank has stopped in is populated with people who want something they can’t have or are afraid to want. Though they are the hostages of mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), they’re also hostages, in a way, to their own desires. There is Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), whose late husband served in World War II with Frank. She feels an attraction to Frank she’d dare not voice; her eyes give away everything. There is James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), Nora’s ailing and crippled father-in-law, who wishes he was young and healthy enough to take down Rocco and his clowning goons. Saddest of all is Gaye Dawn (a gut-wrenching Claire Trevor), Johnny Rocco’s girl, formerly a hot-ticket lounge singer. When Johnny’s desire for her turned to disgust and cruelty, she turned to alcohol and checked out of reality. Gaye, more than anyone else, knows the burden of carrying the memory of the person you’ll never be again.
So “Key Largo” is a multi-layered character study where much of the action takes place in one location: James Temple’s hotel. The setting manufactures a feeling of claustrophobia that heightens the anxiety; the hurricane raging outside the hotel adds another level of menace. These elements, when mixed with Bogart’s increasingly unsuccessful attempts to seem impartial, ratchet up the tension further. While hostage situations lend themselves to that charged atmosphere naturally, Robinson’s bombastic, smirking performance as the entitled gangster helps things along. He doesn’t make his entrance — Johnny Rocco loves a grand entrance — until his lackeys, Curly (Thomas Gomez) and the wisecracking Toots (Harry Lewis), disarm the local sheriff (Monte Blue) and corral the hostages. Johnny intends to trade some counterfit bills and commandeer a boat so he and his crew can escape to Cuba. He’s supremely confident he will succeed: “I was too much for any big city police force to handle. It took the United States government to pin a rap on me. And they won’t make it stick.” He struts and preens, even tossing Frank a gun and trying to anger him into a shootout. Frank doesn’t nibble the bait, leaving us to wonder if he’ll choose inaction to the end.
Frank McCloud does not represent a new direction for Bogart, but somehow the actor makes the character’s troubles feel new. (That was Bogart’s way.) His slow-growing anger is a dynamite match for Robinson’s cocky, boastful energy, leading to a violent, nerve-wracking showdown that’s a game of cat and mouse. Johnny Rocco is a character, but as a criminal he’s no joke — his sing-for-a-drink treatment of his dame Gaye is purely sadistic, and that scene may be what snaps Frank to action. Or perhaps his motivation can be found in a quieter moment, bar none the most wrenching and beautiful shot I’ve ever seen. The camera moves in slowly toward Bogart, looking down at the sleeping Nora. He reaches out his hand gingerly and strokes her hair. He leaves his hand there. Seconds later, the camera catches him looking at Bacall — and oh, what a look. There’s more longing and romance in that look than can be found in volumes of Romantic poetry. It is a symphony of feeling, and it is the moment where he knows and we know that he can’t play cool anymore.