Film Review: ‘Key Largo’ From 1948

Popcorn & Inspiration: Films that uplift the soul
November 23, 2019 Updated: November 24, 2019

Even if you haven’t seen many classic films, you’ve probably heard of the famous film couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Of the four movies that these married actors made together, “Key Largo” from 1948 is one of the most acclaimed. Also starring Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore, and Claire Trevor, this John Huston-directed movie paired these great screen lovers as a hardened veteran and a war widow who find love in the Florida Keys. In addition to being the final Bogie and Bacall movie, it is considered one of the finest films noir. What most people don’t know about “Key Largo” is how inspiring it is.

This movie shows a man’s struggle to continue fighting for what he knows to be right, even though his experiences have hardened him. After risking his own life and seeing friends lose theirs during the war, Bogart’s character, Frank McCloud, is bitter because, like many veterans, he wonders if the world is better off because of the fighting. When he faces a powerful gangster, he questions the use of sacrificing himself to destroy one evildoer. After all, the world is full of them. However, in the face of danger, he realizes that life isn’t worth living if he doesn’t fight for his values.

McCloud, a World War II veteran, goes to Key Largo to visit a deceased comrade’s father and widow. Although it is the off-season, he finds their closed hotel occupied by five shady men and a drunken woman. The proprietor, Mr. Temple (Barrymore), and his daughter-in-law, Nora (Bacall), greet him joyfully. They are eager to hear about their fallen loved one’s service from his commanding officer, so they invite him to spend the night.

Lionel Barrymore and Lauren Bacall greet Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo
Mr. Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his son’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall), greet Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart). (MPTV Images / Warner Bros.)

As a hurricane approaches, the Temples learn that the party who rented out the hotel for a week is more than mysterious. The men are criminals, led by the infamous gangster Johnny Rocco (Robinson). He was deported years ago but is now attempting to restart his criminal activities in America. The hotel keepers, McCloud, and Sawyer (John Rodney), who is a local deputy, are held hostage by this brutal criminal who has no qualms about adding more murders to his record.

Edward G Robinson in Key Largo
Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco in “Key Largo.” (MPTV Images / Warner Bros.)

The Temples are desperate to overpower the loathsome man, but they are outnumbered and unarmed. Meanwhile, Frank and Nora feel the stirrings of love during these tumultuous circumstances.

As the storm bears down, Rocco faces an enemy that he can’t intimidate or defeat with his gun: nature. Will any of them survive the storm? If they do, can the situation inspire enough heroism to defeat Rocco and his mob?

A Telling Scene

Rocco takes aim at Frank McCloud
In a revealing scene, war hero Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is threatened by gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), while in back, Curly (Thomas Gomez), and on the side, Mr. Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and Nora (Lauren Bacall) watch. (MPTV Images / Warner Bros.)

Danger doesn’t always inspire bravery. McCloud risked his life during the war because it was his duty. However, he doesn’t think he should have to keep sacrificing himself.

At one point, Rocco hands Frank a gun and challenges him to shoot him, warning that he will be shot in return. Although his friends urge him to shoot the villain, McCloud decides that he’s not going to lose his life just to eliminate Johnny Rocco. He looks like a coward, but he doesn’t seem to care.

Sawyer, on the other hand, snatches the gun and makes his way toward the door, aiming to escape and bring the police. But Rocco shoots the valiant deputy before he can leave the room. Sawyer tries to shoot back but realizes too late that the gun isn’t loaded. Everyone is horrified at Rocco’s ruthless trick against McCloud.

Is McCloud a coward? Mr. Temple eagerly suggests that McCloud somehow realized the gun wasn’t loaded; he doesn’t want to believe that his new friend is a coward. McCloud, though, cynically says that he didn’t know it wasn’t loaded. He just didn’t want to risk his own life. Nora rebukes him, saying, “If I believed like you do, I’d want to be dead.”

McCloud loses the respect of his friends, particularly Nora, but it’s clear that he is just discouraged because of his experiences, and he hasn’t lost faith in everything. He still believes in the principles for which he fought during the war. He needs only to be reminded of those principles for them to be rekindled. This movie rekindles its viewers’ faith in these principles in much the same way.

Claire Trevor in a center shot
Claire Trevor (C), who won an Oscar for her role as Rocco’s moll, appears with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. (MPTV Images / Warner Bros.)

When McCloud’s confidence falters in the face of Rocco’s power, Nora tells him that you can’t always do what logic tells you: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.” McCloud eventually realizes how true this is, and it motivates him to forego the chance to save himself to defeat Rocco permanently. The selfless bravery that this character embodies is tremendously inspiring.

You don’t have to fight in a war to win a battle against evil. There are battles of good versus evil fought every day. Nora’s motivating words to McCloud can serve as a motto: “Maybe it is a rotten world, but a cause isn’t lost as long as someone’s willing to go on fighting.”

‘Key Largo’
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Released: July 31, 1948 (USA)
Rated: 5 stars out of 5

Tiffany Brannan is an 18-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, travel writer, film blogger, vintage fashion expert, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.