Florida Noir: Key Largo

Key Largo

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Here’s the story of the hurricane….

   On September 2nd 1935, a category five, the highest level, storm slammed into the Florida Keys. The storm hit on Labor Day. Original predictions had it heading between the Lower Keys and Cuba. At first, it was thought to be of lesser severity. Then it blew up heading toward Upper Matcumbe Key, Plantation Key and Tavernier Key with wind speeds between 200 and 250 mph. It turned out to be the strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. Storm surges ranged from 18 to 25 feet. Towns like Tavernier and Marathon were left with no buildings standing. Other towns nearby suffered catastrophic destruction. Over 400 hundred deaths were reported, many were World War I veterans who were working on the completion of the Overseas Highway the road that would connect the mainland to the keys. The veterans were part of the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

Largo5   A few years earlier, in 1932, many returning veterans marched in what became known as the Bonus March. This act of defiance when Washington reneged on a pledge to give promised bonus payments to World War I veterans for their service. Herbert Hoover was President at the time. To quell the protesting, Hoover had the Vets forcibly removed by the U.S. Army. The incident made newspaper headlines across the country with photos showing currently active soldiers shoving, pushing and violently dispersing the Vets. When Roosevelt became President he created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and many Vets were given badly needed jobs. Many were assigned to work on the building of the Oversea Highway. A hurricane evacuation plan was also put into place just in case. However, on Labor Day 1935, the evacuation plan failed.

   A railroad was supposed to arrive in time to pick up the workers and transport them back safely to the mainland. The timing was off with the train attempting to arrive during the actual hurricane. With the more than 200mph winds and massive storm surge the train derailed. The Veterans were left stranded, let down once again by the government. Recuse efforts did not resume until Wednesday September 4th. For many, it was too little, too late. [1]

Key Largo   This brings us to Lionel Barrymore, as Mr. Temple, who runs a hotel with his widowed daughter-in-law, Nora (Lauren Bacall) in Key Largo. It’s still off-season and the hotel is empty except for six guests, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his gang of hoods. Rocco claims he and his group are there for the fishing, but there is really another reason. Into this mix enters Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), a Major during the war. Nora’s husband was under his command. He was killed during the battle of San Pietro. Since the war, McCloud has become a drifter, wandering from one job to another, from one town to another until finally coming down to Key Largo to visit the father and widow of the fallen soldier under his command.

   John Huston liked to reference true life incidents in his films like the 1935 hurricane, the battle of San Pietro and like real life Mafia King Pin, Lucky Luciano who Robinson’s Johnny Rocco was partially modeled after. Like Lucky, Rocco was forced into exile.

   The film is based on Maxwell Anderson’s free verse play which starred Paul Muni as King McCloud in the Broadway production. It ran for 105 performances. The play took place after the Spanish-American war and instead of gangsters the bad dudes were Mexican banditos. Muni’s McCloud was a disgraced veteran soldier. When John Huston was first presented with the project by Jerry Wald he hated it. Huston wanted to modernize it turning it into a gangster film. With HUAC forcing their way into everyone’s lives the liberal minded Huston wanted to make a subtle reference about the ugliness in Washington. He wanted to use the gangsters as a sort of metaphor for the dirty thug like tactics of the right-wing committee investigating and demanding conformity under the threat of ruining careers and lives.

largo3   Richard Brooks was a rising screenwriter by the time he was given the assignment to write the screenplay with John Huston. Brooks already had under his belt films like The Killers, Brute Force and Crossfire. By now, he had dreams of wanting to direct. The good news for Brooks was that John Huston was agreeable to Brooks being on set each and every day while he made the film. This was a rare opportunity rarely given to writers.

   Brooks and Huston would spend a few weeks at an off season hotel in Key Largo, just like the setting of the play, soaking up the atmosphere and writing the script. Brooks, a workaholic, would be up early pounding away at the storyline. Huston would sleep late or go out fishing. Later in the day, he would read what Brooks wrote and make suggestions, add or provide his own thoughts and ideas. Brooks would go back to his typewriter and incorporate the changes discussed. The next day the process would be repeated.

   Paul Muni’s deserter, King McCloud, became Major Frank McCloud a vet who since the end of the war has become disillusioned.  He’s in Key Largo to visit the father and widow of a fallen soldier under his command. Also at the hotel are a group of unfriendly underworld thugs led by Johnny Rocco. Rocco, exiled a few years back, has snuck back into the country from Cuba to close a counterfeiting deal with an old underworld crony, a thug named Ziggy (Marc Lawrence). Also, along for the ride is Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), Rocco’s old girlfriend and a certified alcoholic. Trevor’s Dawn is modeled after Lucky Luciano’s alcoholic girlfriend, Gay Orlova who followed Charlie Lucky to Cuba. Rocco and his boys are waiting for Ziggy and his men to show up to close the deal. However, there is one major problem holding up it all up. An oncoming hurricane.

Largo Dan Seymour   When Ziggy calls to tell Rocco they will be late because of the hurricane, Rocco doesn’t understand why. What’s the problem? Just keep driving! You see, Rocco and his boys are from Milwaukee; they don’t get hurricanes. As the storm approaches, Mr. Temple tells the story of the 1935 big one that came through leaving in its wake hundreds of dead bodies. Meanwhile, one of the hotel’s windows blows out.  Rocco, for the first time, is visibly shaken.

   For Bogart and Robinson this was their last film together though it’s the first where Bogie received top billing over Robinson. Eddie G. apparently understood that his days with top billing were over.[2] It was also the last of four films that Bogie and Baby would make together. That said, Robinson’s and Claire Trevor’s performances are remarkable, overshadowing the rest of the cast.

   Robinson’s first appearance in the film ranks up there as one of the most memorable put on celluloid. We first see Rocco in a bathtub, a cigar in his mouth, a drink in his hand and a fan blowing on him helping to keep the oppressive Florida heat bearable. It’s reminiscent of the famous Dalton Trumbo photo, recreated recently in the film Trumbo, that showed the writer famously sitting in his bathtub, smoking, coffee cup and typewriter nearby as he worked.

Largo Trumbo2Largo Tub01f









   As Johnny Rocco, an imposing and cruel gangster, Edward G. Robinson channels his past in the form of Rico Bandello aka, Little Caesar, his career making performance from way back in 1931. Rocco is a bombastic, egotistical and pitiless hood. In one scene he forces his badly in need of a drink mistress to sing Moanin’ Low, in a degrading and cruel assault. Jeffrey Meyers writes, “When her voice cracks in a pathetic performance of the bitterly ironic words – He’s the kind of man needs the kind of woman like me…[3] Robinson’s Rocco scowls at her telling her she’s rotten, still refusing to give her the much needed reward of a drink. At this point, Bogart pours the defeated woman a shot. His reward is a slap in the face from Robinson. Robinson also verbally assaults Lauren Bacall. Apparently, in the screenplay Brooks wrote a line for Robinson to say that Huston knew would never get passed the censors. Huston left the line in, but had Robinson first grab Bacall, kissing her forcibly, and then whispering the forbidden line into her ear. We can’t hear what’s said. Only the look on her face reveals it was something ugly. Claire Trevor’s performance earned her an Oscar.

largo   Rocco associates include Thomas Gomez as “Curly” Hoff, Harry Lewis as Toots, Dan Seymour as Angel and William Haade as Ralph Fenney. Also in the cast is Jay Silverheels and Monte Blue. Silverheels had spent the past ten years in bit parts portraying Native Americans. Just one year after this film’s release he would gain everlasting fame as The Lone Ranger’s faithful partner, Tonto.

   While the setting is the Florida Keys, the only on location scenes are right at the beginning of the film when we see a bus riding along the Overseas Highway, aka U.S. Highway 1, which goes from Miami to the Keys. Huston wanted to shoot the film in Florida, but after the expensive costs associated with the making of his earlier film, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Warner Brothers opted to shoot the rest of the film on its backlot. This included all the boat, including the yacht, scenes which were filmed in huge tanks, sometimes using miniatures. Bogart’s actual boat, the Santana, was also used in some scenes. Though filmed in Warner’s backlot, Huston and his brilliant cinematographer Karl Freund capture the humid Floridian heat of the summer. Sweat is on everyone’s brow along with wet stained shirts.

TCM is showing Key Largo on Monday June 6th at 4:30PM (est).


[1]  Doll, Susan, Morrow, David, Florida on Film, University Press of Florida, Gainesville, Fla. 2007 Pgs. 61-62                                                                                                                  Wikipedia   –  1935 Labor Day Hurricane

[2]  Robinson, Edward G. Spigelgass, Leonard (editor) All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography, Hawthorn Books, New York, 1974, Pg. 254

[3] Meyers, Jeffrey, John Huston: Courage and Art, Crown Archetype, New York, 2001, Pg. 151


6 comments on “Florida Noir: Key Largo

  1. le0pard13 says:

    One of my all-time favorites! Really a treat to watch no matter how many times I’ve seen it.


  2. John Greco says:

    Agree. I love Robinson in this. He’ s pure evil.


  3. Sam Juliano says:

    John, you are a master of many things in your life. Add to that talents now the ability to know what others are watching. Though I have seen KEY LARGO a number of times in my life, I watched the newly-acquired BLU RAY of the film just this past wednesday with my wife who hadn’t seen it. It makes you wish you were there during the raging hurricane, regardless of the dangerous machinations at play. Robinson, Bogie, Bacall and scene stealing lush Tevor all stupendous and some awesome set pieces to boot.Gomez is great too, as is the superlative cinematography and score. The blu ray really glistens! Wonderful multi-faceted review here!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Rob K says:

    Anyone know what stretch of the Overseas highway was in the opening credits. I’m thinking channel #2 bridge. Mile Marker 72.8 ???


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