Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.3: John Huston's Key Largo

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next, 1948’s Key Largo.
Grade:  78 (B+)
John Huston in 1948 was at his highest point: he made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, his best film, and won the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, along with directing his father Walter in an Oscar-winning performance. The film has gone on to be regarded as one of the finest ever made, but Huston had another major release in 1948: Key Largo, a minor-classic noir and Huston’s only chance to direct the classic romantic pair of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (who had met on Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not and stayed together till Bogey’s death in 1957). The film can’t quite match up to Huston’s other film of that year, but that’s hardly a fair comparison, and it’s a nice addition to his filmography all the same.
Frank McCloud (Bogart) is on his way to Key Largo, the southernmost part of the Florida Keys. He’s visiting James and Nora Temple (Lionel Barrymore, Bacall), the father and widow of an old war buddy. The Temples’ hotel has been completely booked by a group of “businessmen”, later revealed to be gangsters, led by fugitive exile Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). When McCloud reveals who the gangsters are, they take over the hotel and take the others hostage, all while a Hurricane rages outside.
As usual, Huston cuts to the chase and doesn’t waste any time introducing the major players. McCloud arrives at the hotel and immediately senses an ugly mood in paradise. Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor in an Oscar-winning role) is a loud drunk woman at the bar, but she’s friendly and she buys McCloud a beer. The other guys around her? They’re a bit touchier, and they’re more than willing to (literally) twist Gaye’s arm to get her out of there. Their boss is out of sight, but there’s a dangerous presence in the hotel nonetheless. Meanwhile, James and Nora are in the middle of post-War grieving, and McCloud’s not too far off. The Temples are protecting two Native American brothers wrongfully accused of a crime, and they’re trying to keep the cops out of there. One snooping officer finds Rocco, and now everyone’s in danger. Huston establishes this very quickly, and the rest of the film deals with an uncomfortable night spent at gunpoint.
McCloud is a classic Huston hero: an outsider, one who hasn’t held a steady job since he came back from the war. He witnessed his friend’s death at San Pietro (a battle Huston documented). He’s damaged, and he doesn’t want to stick his neck out for anyone (Casablanca is referenced more than once). He’s a lost soul in post-War America, with nowhere to go and nothing to keep him in any particular place. He becomes a hero out of necessity more than anything else: he doesn’t want anyone to get killed, so he has to stay cool. But sometimes his “coolness” could be mistaken for cowardice (Nora makes the accusation, and McCloud doesn’t disagree). It isn’t until after Rocco gets real innocents killed, namely the two Native Americans.

Huston’s film takes another look at the dark side of capitalism, namely the existence of Johnny Rocco. McCloud claims that America became great because of “businessmen” like him, and it’s difficult to disagree. Robinson’s performance is heavily based on Al Capone, one of the most famous men of the early twentieth century, a man as celebrated as he was loathed. He played dirty tricks and killed people to realize the American Dream, but it’s the American Dream nonetheless. He’s managed to corrupt and ruin a good-hearted soul like Gaye, who suffers from crippling alcoholism (she likely won the Oscar for a deeply  sad scene in which she sings for a drink). Idealism is dead, and Johnny Rocco has taken its place. That he gets two Native Americans killed only adds to his status as a notorious American capitalist (Huston’s evenhanded portrayal of the Natives is another example of his status as a progressive filmmaker, albeit a less developed one than in Sierra Madre).

Key Largo isn’t a perfect movie. Huston initially gets points from showing how beautiful Key Largo is, and the storm raging outside/heat in the hotel is as real as an Old Hollywood film can be. Unfortunately, the film feels a bit too stagey at times, and the pacing is occasionally lumpy. The former can be attributed to the story’s origin as a play, while the latter Huston claimed was due to studio interference that removed certain scenes (Huston rarely shot anything he didn’t absolutely, positively need). Bacall and Bogart’s relationship isn’t as complex as it was in some of their earlier outings (The Big Sleep), also possibly due to studio interference. Finally, the film ends on a happy note that feels uncharacteristic for Huston (the play ended with McCloud’s death along with the gangsters).
But that moment of false uplift occurs after a dynamite climax. Huston is occasionally hamstrung throughout the film by the story’s inherent staginess, but at Howard Hawks’ suggestion, he changed the location of the final shootout to Rocco’s boat (Hawks had wanted to include said set-piece in To Have and Have Not but couldn’t find a place for it). Huston shows his master craftsmanship in a scene where it’s essential to know where everyone is at all times. Rocco and two of his henchmen are below deck while McCloud is driving the boat with two men. He manages to outsmart them, and soon it’s just him and Rocco. McCloud then does something very smart and climbs above a window out of Rocco’s sight. Rocco tries to “make a deal” with McCloud, but he’s looking to the doorway for his adversary. The look over McCloud’s face here is priceless:  he knows he’s going to win, but hearing Rocco act like he’s in charge is funny as hell. It’s a great moment of wry humor from Huston in the middle of one hell of a set-piece, and it leaves a greater impression than a bum ending note ever could.

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