domingo, 28 de octubre de 2012

When the stars fail. A reflection about "Key Largo"

(Written on September 18th)

The movie “Key Largo” had all the elements to be a great movie. It had Humprey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in their glorious years as a couple, both on and off the screen. John Huston was very popular as one of the most significant directors during the film noir era in the USA.  Edward G. Robinson was one of the viewers’ favorite actors due to his fiery acting, which gave him in a strong presence on the screen. Richard Brooks, one of the best writers and adapters for the big screen, co-adapted the play for screenwriting before becoming a notorious director. And as a fountain of inspiration, there was the figure of Maxell Anderson, Pulitzer Prize winner, as the writer of the original play.  Despite all of these factors in its favor, ultimately “Key Largo” is a disappointing movie.  I expected much more at the beginning of the film than I actually found at the end. 
The premise of the film is clear, as are the scenery, the intentions of the characters and the confrontation. This premise works despite the overuse of close ups of the innocent face of Lauren Bacall with the purpose of the producers selling her image to the moviegoers. But the film begins to crumble when the villain, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), makes his entrance. The appearance of this mysterious man, who had been hiding in his room, was supposed to heighten the suspense of these characters enclosed in the hotel, but it did not. This villain is scary in his first scene when he finally presents himself in his bathrobe. But throughout the dialogues and scenes that follow, as he starts to defy the others characters he loses all his evilness.

Instead of showing him as the most powerful weapon of danger against them, the confrontations of Johnny Rocco with other protagonists reveal him to be a vulnerable gangster. First it was the discussion with James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), and old man who moves on his wheelchair. Temple is disrespectful with Rocco and he screams at him constantly. Rocco has no reaction. Then, Frank McCloud (Humprey Bogart) is sarcastic towards Rocco and puts the gangster in the position of a manipulated guy. Later, the image of Rocco as a mobster is debilitated with the shaving scene. The purpose was to show him as an aggressive man. It was more suitable for a comedy. The villain tries to be intimidating with his dialogues but he is weak with his actions.  It is not believable.

The dwindling of Rocco intimidation goes on. After a dirty proposition in her ears, Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) spits on Rocco. She spits on a gangster! In any movie during the thirties and forties, this would be enough reason for an instantaneous execution. But no, Frank McCloud easily convinces him not to kill her. It is unbelievable. And last but not least, one of his men, “Toots,” laughs at the scars on Rocco’s face and he does not retaliate in any way. I must confess that after these scenes, I, as a viewer, lost my respect for this gangster. From this moment on, the movie started to falter for me and I could not buy the rest.  With this weak villain, “Key Largo” blurred as genre movie of film noir.
As a whole, the plot is interlaced and finally resolves all the causes and consequences of the kidnapping during the hurricane in South Florida. But during its progress, it lost its credibility, one of the most important elements for connecting with the moviegoers.
Additionally the hint of the romance between the characters of Bogart and Bacall is not subtle, it is too obvious. It is so evident and shallow like the close ups with a special lens on the face of Bacall. It was very easy to identify the purpose of the producers to give her a halo, as a pure woman that needs to be rescued by the main character. I recognized this manipulation of the public for the promotion of the romance of Bacall and Bogart out of the studios.  The romance was not sincere within this genre.

Nevertheless, besides the first act, there are other valuables elements in the movie. The first one is the interpretation of the character Gaye Dawn. Once more, the actress Claire Trevor gives an image to remember. The character of Gaye Dawn is the most spontaneous, funny and dramatic. Her alcoholism and her emotional explosions provide the freshness to the film that lacks in the wilted protagonists. Claire Trevor in the past gave an excellent characterization in “The Stagecoach” by John Ford in 1939.  She portrayed a prostitute who must run from her little town into this vehicle. Trevor was an actress who was believable in the role of outcast women.  For this reason, she won the Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her performance in “Key Largo”. She deserved it. Other of the secondary actors who was relevant was Lionel Barrymore, who played the role of James Temple, the owner of the hotel. His lines and his interpretation are convincing as the character with the most respectful morals in this world of film noir. He was the conscience and also the bravest of the captives.

And finally, the gang of Johnny Rocco is the last of this list of positive elements. They were frightening and also funny in this feature film. They could provide more dimensions to their characters in despite of their lack of lines. Nonetheless, more dialogue was not necessary. Since their appearance in the bar, they clearly mix their sense of duty towards their boss with the pressure to commit the hijacking in the hotel.  In general terms, while the stars of the film failed, it was the secondary actors who rescued the movie.

I am fan of classic movies and I enjoy them despite the fact that they often times are outdated.  They provide the keys for a contemporary narrative. I learn from the process of creation behind of them.  But “Key Largo”, it doesn’t make the cut. I will always prefer other Huston movies with Bogart such as, “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” Bogart’s characters were more credible in these two movies.  First, he was a wise detective in “The Maltese Falcon,” and then he was a dangerous miner in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” In summary the characters of Bogart, Bacall and Robinson were weak in their construction by Huston and Brooks, and they were lusterless stars in this movie.