The Key Largo hypothesis: Brooks and Huston set the noir context


My re-discovery of Key Largo (1948) unwound in two parts, beginning on an apparently well-known terrain of technique and visible content, but progressing to something else entirely as I fell into the rabbit hole of previously unseen discourses.

Most of what I have to say is from inside that rabbit hole, but it is a journey that may be more explicable if I begin with my own starting point, which was to look again at Key Largo, with a view to adding a critique to my small collection of film noir commentaries.

A re-enounter

Like Dark Passage, Key Largo had struck me as slow and ponderous the first few times I saw it in the 1970s and ’80s, but something else about it grew on me. Perhaps the combination of Edward G Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, or the broodingly oppressive atmospherics simulating the arrival and passing of a Hurricane, which rang more intimately true for me after the first tropical cyclone I experienced in the far north of Western Australia during the early 1980s.

Continue reading “The Key Largo hypothesis: Brooks and Huston set the noir context”

We Were Strangers (1949)

John Garfield was an underutilized and unrealised actor who might just have taken all that socialist stuff far too seriously. He never named anyone, and he was pretty clean when it came to proving things, but HUAC crucified him anyway, and probably drove him to the heart attack that killed him in 1952.

All that said, his performance in this one was less than inspiring: the brooding ideologue, with no sense of humanity or drama. Pedro Armendáriz as the menacing secret police goon Armando Ariete definitely steals the show with his shadow-play at killing everyone and raping heroine China Valdés (Jennifer Jones), all without showing what dictatorships really do. Jones, unfortunately, is just a stereotype, screaming like a little girl and quivering unproductively rather than showing spine and determination.

The film just doesn’t come together and remains a lecturing stage production throughout, despite Huston’s presence. Or maybe because of it. A lot was at stake in 1949, after the Hollywood Ten, and this was one of the reasons the liberals didn’t win.

It could be this was partly homage to Hemingway’s obsession with Cuba, and to all the fast-talking socialist hustlers aiming to trade on their jargon-laden European credentials when socialism was just a fashionable pose. Billy Bragg sure had his model in Montilla, guitar always at the ready to sing ditties about counting the bodies without ever getting his hands dirty.

Exactly what this was supposed to say, at a time when Castro’s rebels were attacking the successful rebels of this film, is a little beyond me. Maybe at somefuture time I will see what was intended and seen all those years ago.


Columbia Pictures, 106 minutes, black and white.

Directed by John Huston. Written by John Huston, Peter Viertel, from a novel by Robert Sylvester. Cinematography by Russell Metty. Produced by Sam Spiegel. Music by George Antheill.

Featuring Jennifer Jones as China Valdés, John Garfield as John Fenner, Pedro Armendáriz as Armando Ariete, Gilbert Roland as Guillermo Montilla, Ramon Novarro as the Chief, Wally Cassell as Miguel, Tito Renaldo as Manolo Valdés, David Bond as Ramón Sánchez, José Pérez as Toto, Morris Ankrum as Mr Seymour.

Across the Pacific (1942)

Charming propaganda film that apparently foresaw Pearl Harbor, and changed the action to Panama after the real attack. If Americans knew the attack was coming at Pearl Harbor, is the rumour true that Roosevelt let it happen to force America into the war?

The old crew of Astor and Greenstreet from the Maltese Falcon reunited with Bogart a year on. Works well. The budding romance between Leland (Bogart) and Marlow (Astor) was well-scripted and decidedly mature compared to the usual mush.

Huston had to be replaced as director part-way through the production when he joined the Signal Corps at the outbreak of war.

I sometimes wonder how Adolph Deutsch didn’t change his name (‘Deutsch’ literally meaning ‘German’).


Warner Brothers, 97 minutes, black and white.

Directed by John Huston, Vincent Sherman. Written by Robert Garson, Richard Macaulay. Cinematography by Arthur Edeson. Produced by Jerry Wald, Jack Saper. Music by Adolph Deutsch.

Featuring Humphrey Bogart as Rick Leland, Mary Astor as Alberta Marlow, Sydney Greenstreet as Dr Lorenz, Kam Tong as T Oki, Charles Halton as AV Smith, Victor Sen Yung as Joe Totsuiko, Roland Got as Sugi, Lee Tung Foo as Sam Wing On, Frank Wilcox as Captain Morrison, Paul Stanton as Colonel Hart, Chester Gan as Captain Higoto, Richard Loo as First Officer Miyuma.