• John Lim

MF 350 : Summer movie series: Key Largo (1947)



This week, I cover the classic thriller, Key Largo (1947), and why you should start with this one to introduce you to black and white movies if you're not already watching them. More at www.bemovingforward.com.


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Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.


A perfect summer crime thriller

I was eight or nine years old and had either finished summer camp or was skipping a day (I hated that place). That means I was at my parents' shop. They worked full-time, 7 days a week to build up their business and so I spent many a day (and evening) in the little administrative office in the back. When I didn't have my head buried in a book, I would sometimes turn on the small black and white television, fiddling with the knobs until I could get a signal. As this was the era of three stations, I could usually get a clear picture on one of them after swinging the broken antennae around for a few minutes.


Around 2 or 3 pm, one of the stations usually aired classic movies. It was during one afternoon, oh so many years ago, that I was introduced to my first black and white crime thriller: Key Largo (1947). Up until then, my only experience with black and white movies had been The Wizard of Oz, which was mostly a color film with black and white bookends. This is also excepting that every show or movie I watched on that little set came through in black and white. Key Largo was my introduction to a classic thriller and to the magic of "Bogie and Bacall."


From the first frame until the closing credits, I was mesmerized. I was too young to appreciate or understand who Humphrey Bogart was except that he embodied cool as Frank McCloud, a WWII vet and loner who arrives at the Largo hotel, located in the Florida keys. Being a bit of a loner myself, I could relate a little to McCloud being a drifter with no particular purpose or person to see yet seeking some kind of human connection. When he arrives at the hotel, I was taken aback by the hoodlums in their slick suits hanging around the lobby. When you watch this movie for the first time and without reading a synopsis, you go in with no idea what to expect. I thought I was going to watch a quiet movie about a guy trying to find his place in a post-war world. Instead, I got that and much more. Even in my rube-like innocence, I could tell these guys in the lobby were up to no good. The lighting and ominous musical riffs conveyed that quite clearly.


Through McCloud, I was introduced to the owner of the hotel, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) who I never would have guessed was the great uncle to Drew Barrymore, the little sister from ET, which I saw a few years earlier. From there, I met Nora Temple, James's daughter-in-law, and like most audiences must have been at the time, was taken aback by the beauty of Lauren Bacall. She along with Elisabeth Shue would go on to become one of my childhood cinematic crushes. As McCloud tells them the story of George Temple who died under his command, I got sucked into the story and knew this was a movie I would want to watch to the very end.


As the story progressed, I was introduced to John and Tom Osceola (Jay Silverheels and Rodd Wedring), two members of the Seminole tribe who were wanted by the law for questioning. As James Temple convinces them to cooperate, establishing him as a friend of the Seminoles, I immediately liked all of these characters and wanted nothing bad to happen to them.


Late into the first quarter, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), head of the gang infesting the lobby made his grand entrance on screen. Although he wasn't quite as scary as Darth Vader, I felt an ominous chill when I first saw him. His menace and banality were a counterpoint to McCloud's honor and decency. I was genuinely terrified as he held everyone hostage as a growing storm threatened to wipe everything and everyone out. The howling wind, crackling thunder, and ceaseless downpour outside are a fitting, if not obvious symbol of the chaos and fear brewing inside. I was fascinated by how the movie mostly took place mostly within the hotel. It was an unrelenting, claustrophobic experience and I loved every minute of it.


Key Largo (1947) would stay with me long after the storm receded and the closing credits rolled. I would be fortunate to watch it once or twice more in subsequent airings over the next year or two. Years later, as a member of my high school film society, I would introduce it to new audiences, picking it for one of our Friday night screenings. Today, I own it on DVD and I rewatch it every few years or so. While the suspense and terror aren't quite what 8 or 9 year old me experienced, Key Largo (1947) continues to be a wonderful thrillride every time I revisit these characters at the Largo Hotel.


The good:

  • Phenomenal cast, including the legendary Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore and Edward G. Robinson.

  • Fantastic chemistry between and among characters.

  • Highly engaging plot and pacing that keeps your attention from beginning to end.

  • Everything from the main story to the b-plots involving the Osceola brothers and the Seminole tribe are interesting and keeps you invested.

  • The movie feels like a stage play on screen as it keeps the story mostly centered within the hotel.

The bad:

  • Film score is a little forgettable and not very distinguishable from other movies of the era.

Trivia:

  • Claire Trevor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for this film.

  • Bogart and Robinson had co-starred in four films together with Key Largo (1947) being their last collaboration. Notably, this is the only film in which Bogart got top billing over Robinson.

  • Budget of $1.8M, box office of $4.4M.

Rating:

  • ***** (out of five)

Where you can watch Key Largo (1947)

  • It would likely show up on HBO Max through their TCM collection at some point

  • Try your library with Hoopla digital

  • Purchase or rent Key Largo (1947) from Amazon (affiliate link)

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