Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Key Largo

(This is part of The John Huston Blogothon At Icebox Movies. Go THERE!)

There’s really no damn reason that Key Largo should be my favorite John Huston movie.

I admire Huston’s films for their gritty realism; the way they really broke away from set bound filmmaking. Key Largo is completely stagy, totally set bound (Its based on a play by Max Anderson and brother does it show). I admire Huston’s films for their virility; the way they charge ahead madly to adventure and doom. Key Largo is mostly just people waiting around. I admire Huston’s films for their dynamism. Key Largo is a master class of restraint.

And yet for those who question Huston’s auteurism, I can offer no further proof of it. Despite carrying none of the calling cards I associate with Huston, Key Largo is unmistakably a Huston film, with its focus on masculinity and impotency. Its tight control of tone, its experiments in style, and its knowing precise takes on human nature.

Key Largo follows Humphrey Bogart as a GI just returned for the war, fulfilling the final request of his friend by delivering letters and personal effects to the GI’s now widow, and father, who owns a resort on the Key. A Hurricane warning strands Bogart at the hotel, along with the only other guests, a small time Chicago hood and his meager posse. Who can’t quite admit to himself that he’s straight up running for his life from the law and rival mobsters, and not just making some kind of power play.

It’s far too depressingly easy to imagine what the contemporary version of this would look like. With say Bruce Willis, sneaking from room to room offing thugs and making strained quips like “That was a force five!”

Instead Key Largo develops into a tightly coiled machine. Laying on the pressure ounce by ounce until it becomes nigh unbearable. It’s a movie with a perfect eye and ear for human nature, personified by a cast that represents the Hollywood contract system at its best.

Many talk about “hang out movies” movies that are enjoyable primarily because of the charisma of the actors and shading of the characters. Key Largo is perhaps the worlds first “anti Hang out film” a movie that succeeds primarily because of the profound tension created by the characters disparate styles and personalities.

There is of course Bogart at the center. Unassailably cool, unwilling to surrender either his dignity and his decency in the face of the corrupt men who want to take them. And Bacall every inch his match. Conventional wisdom says that offscreen couples never work onscreen, and old young couplings make both look foolish. But Bacall and Bogart’s four onscreen pairings refute that in the strongest possible terms. Not only do they always seem matched, in every sense of the word, but as for heat, they always seem about two seconds away from tearing off each others clothes and vigorously fucking.

Opposing them are Edward G. Robinson, in arguably his greatest performance as a man no less threatening for being utterly pathetic. And Claire Trevor. Pitiful as Robinson’s mistress, a terminal alcoholic who he makes sing for a drink in one of the most cringe inducing scenes I’ve ever seen in a film.

Huston was not a showy auteur. He did not draw attention to himself and what he did. Instead he merely crafted wise films about the varied nature of humanity that some how never quite crossed the line into cynical, no matter how tempting it must have been. He was the rarest of filmmakers. One who made the system work for them. Giving him the time and resources for daring experimentation, and the support for solid storytelling.

If a reluctance to be pigeon holed is all it takes for one to be denied auteur status I cannot help but wonder if such distinctions are as silly as outsiders suppose them to be.


Adam Zanzie said...

"WILDCAT! Smell blood, eh? Going out for a hunt, eh?"

I love this movie, too. I'm compiling a list for Huston's top ten best and I'm honest to God trying to figure out a way to include Key Largo in there, since it's purely essential Huston viewing.

The thing about this movie is that one is almost tempted to say that the supporting cast steals the show. Robinson is like a big, slimy crustacean that's just crawled out of its shell and Claire Trevor's performance netted a justly deserved Oscar (I can even remember her song and its lyrics- "He's the kinda man..." -without having to Google them). And of course Lionel Barrymore has a lot of fun as the cripple with the lisp.

But despite the fact that their roles may not be quite as fun, Bogart and Bacall are great, too. It's a little like watching Harrison Ford and Anne Archer in one of Phillip Noyce's Tom Clancy films: even though the roles as written aren't very interesting, we end up rooting for them because their star presence lends them so much charisma. I can't imagine somebody else other than Bogart filling in the shoes of Frank McCloud, who is, honestly, something of a wooden character. In order for us to root for him, the role absolutely calls for a star.

That cat-and-mouse game between Bogart and Robinson on the boat at the end had me shaking. Huston could easily have just had them fighting on the deck, but instead he puts Bogart on the roof, and out of Robinson's sight. Nothing less than a masterstroke.

Just an observation: is that poster for Key Largo, or To Have and Have Not? Bogie's ship captain's hat as well as the inclusion of the name "Howard Hawks" makes it look suspicious ;)

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Completely agree. Robinson is great, its hard to be threatening and completely pathetic at the same time.

You're correct also on how dependant the movie is on Bogart's considerable charisma. And that boat scene is tops.

Your also correct on the poster. Fuck. It showed up under my search and I didn't look close enough. Oh well I like the one I found better anyway.

Richard said...

It's Edward G. Robinson, not Edgar. Should anyone pay attention to what you have to say when you can't even get the cast members right?

AK said...

Wow, this movie creeped me out. And yet at first I couldn't get into it. Too "movie-ish" with that cast, I probably thought to myself (although these prejudices didn't apply to a few other Bogie and Bacall collaborations, namely The Big Sleep). But the tension kept building with this one...culminating with that awful scene with Claire Trevor being forced to sing for her supper (well, or a cocktail)-Cripes!
One brief note of discord: I always get the giggles when Bacall starts pummeling the bad guy's chest so weakly. I get it, she's a gentle young woman, but C'Mon! Smack his head in with a brick, or a shoe or something!
Nonetheless, I really like this movie. Chemistry between performers should never be discounted (it's saved many a lesser film)and those two really had it.
And Edward G. Robinson...! I've been delighted to read about what a nice guy he was in real-life (apparently Bette Davis was the one and only person he had a rough time getting along with)and for some reason, this makes me really happy. Very cool!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Richard: No more than I will pay attention to what you say, as you appear not to have the balls to write anything yourself. You officious little prick.

Rest assured I will flagellate myself for hours, to repent my typo.

In summary; No good sir, Fuck You.

@ Rob: I hear you man, we all know Bacall knows how to throw a punch.