Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) is an ex-army major from the Second World War who wants to put the past behind him, yet first there's one thing he must do. He travels to the Florida Keys, that group of islands at the southernmost tip of the United States, to visit the relatives of a soldier who died in Italy under his command. While on the bus there, the vehicle is stopped by police searching for two escaped American Indian convicts, but he thinks little of it and when he arrives at the hotel he's more concerned with the unfriendly reception he receives. After a distinct lack of welcome, Frank gets a drink and finds out that while the hotel is not taking in any guests, despite appearances, the soldier's father, Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall), are out back on the dock. But there's someone else at the hotel - a visitor they could all do without...
Here's a gangster movie where the hero, Bogart, does very little to help out until the very end. Based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and adapted by director John Huston and soon-to-be director Richard Brooks, it set up its characters to represent the state of America at that time, with the result that today it looks more than a little pretentious. Still, it is a thriller starring Bogart and Edward G. Robinson at somewhere near the top of their game, and the supporting cast is none too shabby either. Robinson, playing Johnny Rocco, doesn't appear until almost half an hour into the film but his presence as a sinister occupant of an upstairs room is felt throughout those opening sequences. In the meantime, his henchmen order people around in the bar and the lobby so we know that there's something amiss.
To crank up the tension, there's a hurricane headed in their direction, giving the film a handy excuse to hold all its characters in the same place for the duration. As the wind picks up, the parallels with current affairs make themselves obvious, with Frank as the loner who has fought his battles and has no wish to go through them again. Unfortunately for him, there's the business of Rocco to contend with, as he is hanging around waiting for a fellow gangster to turn up later on that evening and proceeds to threaten everyone, even his allies, as he throws his weight around. He is an immigrant from twenty years back, we presume from Europe, who made his name in organised crime and is now being deported - if the authorities can find him, that is. He sees the general post war apathy as the ideal climate to restart his actiivities.
What happens is a microcosm of the years around and including World War II, as at first the Americans, represented by Bogart, don't want to get involved, then the hurricane hits and Rocco murders a cop who had tracked him down and become his prisoner, a neat allusion to the bigger conflict. Frank had the opportunity to shoot Rocco, or so they thought, and when he doesn't Nora makes clear her disgust with him but only when Rocco victimises his alcoholic, ageing moll (an Oscar-winning Claire Trevor) by making her sing for a drink - a cringeful scene - does Frank stand up to him. Robinson is splendidly sleazy here, whether whispering obscenities in Nora's ear or nervously demanding conversation in the middle of the storm, and he is easily the best thing about Key Largo. Bogart is just too reluctant a hero, although that's what the plot asks for, and the film tends to be bogged down in chatter, but if it doesn't quite look like a classic now, it is efficiently made and occasionally inspired in its performances. Music by Max Steiner.