Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Winds of Fate

I can understand why John Huston decided to make a movie in which Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart’s powerful personalities are confined to smallish, overcrowded rooms. There is dramatic combustibility in such a tactic. Unable to bully or maneuver their way out of scenes, each man in 1948’s Key Largo is forced to deal with the other. The fact that neither gains the upper hand over the other – that is, prior to the film’s climax – is entirely the point on display here. Trapped in a hotel together, forced to wait out a terrific hurricane that rages just outside the building’s fragile windows, Huston intentionally restricts this pair of hyper-masculine, action-oriented men in order to teach them both a lesson in humility and to remind them that a person’s ability to control their own fate is limited.

Thanks to his guns and his gang, it initially seems like Robinson is completely in control of the film’s plot, but once the hurricane arrives, all bets are off – and Robinson, who is suddenly equally as powerless as the others, knows it. The rotten weather cages the armed and the unarmed alike. Bogart seems to understand this when he growls, “You don't like it, do you (Robinson), the storm? Show it your gun, why don't you? If it doesn't stop, shoot it.”

Of course, Robinson cannot shoot the weather any more than he can plug the people trapped in the hotel with him (he needs all of them for something). The fact the cruel and well-armed gangster is fairly powerless – or has his power limited by things entirely beyond his control – is pivot on which the entire film swings. As for the storm, it is the ultimate illustration of humanity’s powerlessness. It arrives randomly and wreaks equally random destruction – and not just on the hotel buildings.

Robinson as the smug gangster.
Tertiary characters in Key Largo do not fare well and their fates are meted out with almost the same sense of randomness that powers the storm’s creation. Consider, the fate of the two Seminole Indians, enticed to turn themselves in after escaping from prison. They come to the hotel because Lionel Barrymore’s character tells them he will make certain the local authorities deal fairly with them. Both Indians are framed by Robinson for a murder they did not commit and are subsequently gunned down by the local sheriff. The other characters blame the deaths on Robinson’s trickery, which obviously plays an important role. However, Robinson would not even be at the hotel were it not for Key Largo’s geographic location – off the coast of Florida –and the storm that prevents his departure. Thus, an unforeseen confluence of seemingly random events plays a critical role in the fate of the two men.
Of all the characters, Bogart’s cynical war-veteran seems to understand more than most that even matters of life and death are largely chance. Though it is never fully explained, the film strongly suggests that Bogart survived the hard-fighting at Monte Casino and Lauren Bacall’s husband did not through the exercise of sheer luck. This is partly why Bogart rejects the war hero mantle, is willing to ascribe it to the dead husband and arrives at the hotel tired and world weary. For him, Key Largo is literally the end of the road, a way to escape his listless post-war existence on the mainland and to try to start fresh.
His trajectory runs him smack into Robinson, another character interested in a fresh start. Only Robinson is trying to get back to the mainland after being kicked out of America because of his involvement in organized crime during the depression. On opposite sides of the law and on opposite paths, the two men can only glare at one another as they simmer and slowly come to an unhappy boil in the close confines of the hotel. The firecracker interactions between these two titans of studio cinema are a large part of what makes an otherwise straightforward film dramatic and irresistibly interesting.
A pair of tough guys...
This is also the fourth and final film Bogart and Bacall made together. In critical terms, it is the second-best after The Big Sleep. However, in terms of chemistry between the famous husband and wife team, Key Largo is the weakest of the four. Bacall is oddly silent for most of this film. What little acting she is called on to do, she does with her eyes – most of which is quite good, but her plain-Jane routine is a terrible waste of the sultry sexuality we saw in To Have and Have Not, and we cannot help but feel like any actress could have played this rather uninteresting role.
The husband and wife, not sparkling together.
Robinson’s one-time glamorous girlfriend (played by Claire Trevor) is far more exciting.
Trevor’s character was a big deal during the days of prohibition – talented, beautiful, famous and highly sought after. But a life on the run with Robinson has reduced her to a nervous alcoholic, with passable good looks and a shaky voice that is forever scared of its own sound, lest it upset her endlessly irritable partner. When Robinson forces her to sing for some whiskey, she absentmindedly lapses into “Moanin’ Low,” a sad tune whose lyrics describe a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. She begins the song full of gusto, but as the meaning of the words penetrate her addled mind, her performance falls apart under the weight of the realization she is singing about herself. It is terrible moment, portrayed with incredible power by Trevor, who won as Oscar for this performance.
Trevor belts it out.
Trevor is also noteworthy here because she is the only other character than Bogart who is changed by the film’s plot. Backed into a corner and repeatedly reminded of his inability to alter his situation, Bogart frets and fumes and eventually decides that a man has to take advantage of whatever crumbs of opportunity come his way and fight to clear his own path as best he can. In doing so, he seemingly rejects the attractive logic of pragmatism and offers up that humanity’s destiny should be shaped by more than the sum of any equation: “When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses,” he concludes. Trevor agrees, and for the first time in what must be a long time, she begins to push back against Robinson and work within her own opportunities to shape the outcomes of her fate.
All does not end well for everyone in this tale that no one seems in control of, but by pushing back, a few of these characters learn how to resist the winds of fate as much as possible. Huston's overall message seems to be that life is random, tough and unfair, a set of circumstances that makes the "pushing" all the more important. Bogart says he fought the war to rid the world of men like Robinson's character. At the end of the movie, Bogey is still fighting, and his decision to do so is invigorating. In between, the powerlessness experienced by everyone in the hotel is palpable and humbling, and the randomness of events is terrifying. We cannot control everything, the hurricane seems to be saying with every rattle of the windows, but a person should be ready to act in the moments when they can control some small thing...


  1. Spot on analysis. "Key Largo" is a movie holds up well to repeated viewings. In fact, I think multiple viewings are required to fully appreciate its richness.

  2. I definitely plan to watch this again, and I believe it has just been re-released on DVD, along with a lot of other Bogart films, such as African Queen and Sahara.

  3. Nice review and right on the money. This is actually one of my favorite Bogart films. I enjoy the way the characters have to deal with each other in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the hotel with the storm raging and threatening outside ...