Key Largo

Key Largo (1949)
Warner Home Video
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor
Extras: Cast & Crew Bios, Behind The Scenes, Production Notes, Theatrical Trailer

Once upon a time, in a far-away land called Hollywood USA, dream factories dotted the landscape. Collectively, they were known as "the studio system." The studio system fostered the talents of many good actors, writers, directors, composers and artisans who, in turn, created a body of film work primarily because it was their job to do so. However, directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston, despite the shackles frequently imposed by their mogul masters and the production code of the time, managed to sneak some high voltage themes and imagery into their studio-sanctioned projects. If you want a stellar example of old Hollywood craftsmanship, check out Warner Home Video’s luminescent DVD of John Huston’s classic thriller "Key Largo."

As adapted by John Huston and co-scribe Richard Brooks from Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 play, "Key Largo" spins the tale of a group of people held prisoner at a Florida hotel by the elements and a gang of ruthless thugs on the lam, lead by the sadistic Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). As the storm swirls around the captives and their captors, inner tempests rage within the hostages as well, which include soul-shocked ex-GI Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), war widow Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) and her disabled father-in-law (Lionel Barrymore). Rocco’s alcoholic moll (Claire Trevor, in an Oscar-winning performance) and his sweaty goons (among them, character actors par excellence Thomas Gomez and Dan Seymour) round out the gritty cast of characters.

In the eye of the storm, both literally and figuratively, is Robinson’s played-to-the-hilt performance as gangster leader Rocco. We first see him lounging in the bathtub while reading a paper and smoking a cigar. When he emerges, he swathes himself in a fashionable robe. This contradictory image of normalcy and decadence is reminiscent of Clifton Webb’s infamous cinematic soak in Otto Preminger’s "Laura" and a possible subversion of the cheesecake photos of the pin-up girls of WWII (the ones where the ladies are covered in suds and answering the phone or reading a magazine). Robinson’s gnome-like features, contrasted with a knack for stylish clothes, underscore both the admiration and fright that we associate with gangsters. (This theme would re-emerge 25 years later in the "Godfather" films.) Only here, titillation gives way to repulsion. Rocco’s vicious actions convinces the captives (and the viewer) that he is seemingly afraid of nothing… until Mother Nature shows her fury. The scenes of Rocco pacing madly as the gale swirls around him, juxtaposed with the cuts of McCloud realizing there’s a weakness in Rocco, are positively exhilarating.

Despite the quintessential tough guy image hawked by the studio, Humphrey Bogart’s appeal to millions of film fans of both sexes was his ability to project male vulnerability. Nobody could show a man’s pain as Bogart could. In "Key Largo," the close ups of his face when deciding not to act, either out of cowardice or prudence, shows both a tortured and vigilant mind. At one point in the film, Rocco challenges McCloud to shoot him with a pistol, with the understanding that McCloud would die as well. We feel McCloud’s agony about pulling the trigger. What Bogart could telegraph in a glance would take most actors reams of dialogue. When Rocco’s action precipitate the deaths of two innocent men, the close-up of Bogie’s face actually charts McCloud’s revelation that he clearly knows his ultimate destiny… and Johnny Rocco’s.

The video transfer is so sharp, it practically snaps. Somebody got to the negative and restored or rescued it at the right time, because I would imagine this is how the film looked when it first flickered across movie screens in 1948. The source is virtually blemish-free and I could not detect any compression or digital artifacts whatsoever. The images are so clean you can actually count the beads on sweat on everyone’s foreheads.

At first I glance, I thought the DVD bungled the contrast. The daytime scenes looked so bright, the blacks appeared practically washed-out. Only at the end of watching the movie did I realize what prompted my initial response: The effect is intentional. Huston, in collusion with legendary cinematographer Karl Freund, conducts a symphony of shadows… as only that mysterious mix of black & white creates. The beaming daylight scenes lull the viewer into a false sense of security. At first, nothing appears out of the ordinary in the seemingly normal hotel environs. As night falls and the storm approaches, our antagonists make their real presence and dark purpose known.

The disc offers the original English soundtrack in <$DD,Dolby Digital> mono, as well a French soundtrack, which has just enough crackles and hiss to suggest the dubbing is from the period (I wonder who dubbed Bogart in French?).
The audio exhibits some wear and signs of distortion, on par for a monophonic track its age. Occasionally, when the music swells, the center channel sounds a little congested. Yet the picture is so good, you will be hard pressed to find fault with the audio. Subtitle options include English and French ("Tu n’es pas assez malin pour moi! Je te teurai!").

Extras are scant, but interesting. Cast & crew bios are present, along with fairly engaging production notes (e.g. how the original play was about a Spanish American War deserter who fights off bandits or how Huston, furious at producer Jerry Wald over hiding the play’s "deficiencies," banned Wald from the set). The original theatrical trailer is included, trumpeting the exclamations conspicuous to 1940s movie marketing ("Where Adventure Inflames Men To Violent Action…And Romance Smoulders In Women Until It Conquers Or It Kills…").

Everything about "Key Largo" seems perfect. The casting, the pacing, and the unfolding of the plot all have a synchronicity bordering on the magical. Watching this film, we are witnessing the work of dedicated practitioners in the art of illusion that did their job so well it looked easy to the viewer. Thanks to the conscientious efforts of Warner Home Video, we will continue to be its beneficiaries for years to come.