An array of stars in this sub-genre of noir with a disaster premise. Since most film noir assumes that fate plays a (often decisive) role in life, a natural disaster is great device to drive that theme home. Actually, the criminal element (Edward G. Robinson’s Rocco, Claire Trevor as his ‘dame’ Gaye, and hopefully-named underlings) usually represents the agents of fate; the hurricane in Key Largo adds another fateful dimension. Also it brings the noirish atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia.
The innocent folks are represented by the Temples–Lionel Barrymore as the father James and Lauren Bacall as his daughter-in-law Nora. Everyone else is pretty much on-the-level too; Bogart, as war buddy to the dead George Temple is a little harder to classify. Why exactly does he show up at the remote Temple family hotel? He says he wants to settle in there.
Actually, there’s two criminal plots. Aside from Rocco’s mob trying to escape to Cuba with some counterfeit loot, there’s a couple of escape prisoners on the lam from the two local cops Wade (Monte Blue) and the unfortunate Sawyer (John Rodney). First Sawyer is ambushed by Rocco’s guys, then shot by Rocco in an unfair game of chicken. Given the chance, Frank is unwilling to shoot Rocco in cold blood–although he risks instant death from the underlings, plus his gun isn’t loaded. Sawyer gamely gives it a shot, so to speak, but draws blanks.
At the height of the storm, James is able to unnerve Rocco with tales of previous hurricanes, probably embellishing a bit with 200mph winds, derailed trains, and floating corpses,etc. Rocco’s the only one to show obvious fear of the storm; his type fears anything they can’t control. In an odd way, the hurricane is a positive force; bottling up the criminals, and distracting them as well.
When Wade shows up after the storm abates, Rocco is able to finger the Native-American prisoners for Sawyer’s death. By the time Wade figures out the whole deal, it’s too late to save the prisoners. Rocco’s accomplice Ziggy (Marc Lawrence) pops up, setting the end-game in motion. Fittingly, Gaye is the one to get the drop on Rocco; she’s the one who knows and hates him the most.
The denouement involves a sting of finely-crafted noir scenes. The boat, itself a very confined space, its the interior a maze of shadows and compartments; and topside in the fog, Frank bides his time with his concealed gun. As the long shoot-out develops and Rocco’s guys start hitting the deck, Rocco starts panicking. He lamely tries to negotiate with Frank. But, solid-noir hero that he is, Frank doesn’t bite, and, though wounded, manages to plug Rocco, call for help, and presumably make it back more or less in one piece.
Nora and Frank’s romance is implied by her opening up the curtains to the returning sunshine. key Largo doesn’t miss a step: the pacing and tension are palpable, and everything’s lit-up by some great performances–especially Bogart, Robinson, and Trevor. Barrymore’s and Bacall’s roles are more passive, but their scenes finish off what the other three don’t chew up.
Not to be missed; one of the best film-noirs. 10/10.