CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
I think a lot of people do “Key Largo” a disservice by trying to shoehorn it into either the Gangster Movie or the Film Noir mold. Yes, it has gangsters in it, and it is thematically, if not iconographically noir, but it’s really a mood piece and an actor’s piece. It allows Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson to enlarge upon roles they had been perfecting for a decade or more, and it gave the supporting cast–Lauren Bacall, Lionel Barrymore, Claire Trevor, Thomas Gomez and Marc Lawrence some nice bits too. Whether you want to call “Key Largo” Bogart’s film as ex-Maj. Frank McCloud, a disillusioned veteran, or Robinson’s film as Johnny Rocco, ex-gangland big-shot, exiled to Cuba “like some dirty Red” but dreaming of a come-back, it’s still an actor’s showcase and each makes the most of what he’s given. Undeniably Robinson has the showier role. His Rocco struts and storms–and sweats in the tropical heat–but the harder he tries, the more his present-day status as a has-been shines through. A key scene in which he meets with Lawrence’s gang-boss Ziggy to sell him a stash of counterfeit bills makes clear his now-diminished stature. Rocco might still be big to his overweight lieutenant Curly Hoff (Gomez) but beneath the false back-slapping and bonhomie, it’s clear that Ziggy views him as yesterday’s news. Sure he’ll buy the green goods from him, and jolly him along about Prohibition coming back and mobs all working as a team again, but the truth of it is that Ziggy’s cold-eyed bodyguard eyes Rocco’s punkish man “Toots” (Harry Lewis) with disdain. These guys are no threat to the real big boys. Of course Rocco has a trick up his sleeve too–abandoning his drunken ex-mistress (Trevor) in the expectation that, enraged at being dumped, she’ll rat on Ziggy to the police. So much for the gangs all working together again. (This bit of strategy elicits from Gomez the admiring remark that, “There only one Johnny!” a line that echoes Rocco’s earlier boast to McCloud, “Thousands of guys got guns, but there’s only one Johnny Rocco!”)
Bogart’s McCloud is a slightly different matter. Simply because he’s being played by Bogart and not, say, Claude Rains, we know that Bogart will finally abandon his “non-interventionist” stance and will stand up to Rocco and his rag-tag gang of thieves. In this regard Frank McCloud is a variation of the famous Rick from “Casablanca.” In both films his initial distaste for a group–Conrad Veidt’s Maj. Strasser and his Nazis in “Casablanca,” Rocco and his gang in “Key Largo”–leads to moral re-awakening and the need to take a stand. For Rick it was enough to shoot the villainous Strasser, McCloud must take out Rocco, Curley, Toots, Ralph and Angel–which he manages to do by biding his time and getting them all in a single tight space–the fishing charter “Santana” piloted by McCloud in which the gang expect to reach Cuba. By overcoming them one by one–and with an assist from Rocco who shoots the cowardly Angel–it all comes down to Rocco and McCloud, and despite his disrespecting McCloud by denying him a name, referring to him merely as “Soldier,” and his shouting “You’re not big enough to do this to Rocco!” it turns out that McCloud is.
It has been remarked upon that “Key Largo” is one talky gangster film, heavy with philosophical exchanges–from Rocco’s revelation that “more” will be enough for him to McCloud’s former desire “to purge the world of ancient evils”–and with all the action coming in the final five-or-so minutes of an almost two-hour film. But the action isn’t really the point. We’ve already seen how Ziggy regards the former Big Boss and watched Rocco’s growing panic in the face of the approaching storm that really marks the climax of the film. Once the sea has gotten up on its hind legs and walked across the land there’s not much left to tell. Although neither man has experienced a hurricane before this, McCloud passes the test; Rocco does not. In a sense the business that plays out aboard the “Santana” is simply putting Rocco out of the misery that his delusions of grandeur have caused him.