RETROSPECTIVE: Key Largo [Big screen classics @ The BFI]

Key Largo

This piece comes to you courtesy of my podcasting partner, the esteemed Mr. Rob Daniel of, who was kind of enough to go along to a screening of this in my stead.

Bogart and Bacall’s fourth and final film together, Key Largo is a claustrophobic chamber piece shot with threatening camera angles and aggressive lighting. Based on Maxwell Anderson’s play of the same name, writer/director John Huston and co-writer Richard Brooks change the lead character from a Spanish Civil War deserter to WW2 hero, Frank McCloud. 

Bogart’s McCloud visits the titular Florida key to visit the father and widow of a dead war buddy. Once at their seafront hotel he discovers on-the-lam gangsters are holding everyone hostage. Tempers rise, matched by the outside wind as a hurricane approaches. 

Save for opening exteriors shot on location, most of Key Largo was filmed on Warner sound-stages and in water tanks.  Punishment inflicted by boss Jack Warner, who gagged at the price tag of Huston and Bogart’s previous movie, the shot-in-Mexico masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

But, through dynamic framing and impressive practical effects, Key Largo is a convincing man vs. man vs. nature thriller. An early example of the home invasion film, Key Largo’s DNA can be traced in 1955’s The Desperate Hours (with Bogie as the bad guy), Funny Games, Panic Room, and You’re Next  many others.

Bogart showcases the hard-bitten heroism that made him an icon, while Bacall and Barrymore are memorable as his friend’s widow and father. But, it’s Edward G. Robinson as mob boss Johnny Rocco (modelled on Al Capone and Lucky Luciano) who fittingly steals the show. 

Slickly seductive and dead-eyed evil, he’s a chilling embodiment of runaway capitalism, leading to topical laughs when in a desperate moment McCloud declares, “Rocco could be President for all I care!”

No-one puts a foot wrong, but the acting honours went to Claire Trevor, who picked up a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as a woman corrupted by too many years as Rocco’s moll.

Thanks, too, as always to the BFI for the ticket. Key Largo screened as part of their ongoing Big screen classics programme. I strongly recommend getting along if you can – there’s always something worth watching.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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