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

Key Largo Banner image.

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.

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 1990s.

The story seemed straight-forward enough: gangsters headed by Johnny Rocco (Robinson), holed up in a remote hotel menace the owners and the surprise guest, former major Frank McCloud (Bogart). McCloud is visiting hotel owner James Temple and his daughter-in-law, Nora (Bacall), whose husband served under him in the war, but fell in the Italian campaign.

Edward G Robinson as Johnny Rocco, Humphrey Bogart as Frank McCloud, Lionel Barrymore as James Temple, Lauren Bacall as Nora Temple.
Edward G Robinson as Johnny Rocco, Humphrey Bogart as Frank McCloud, Lionel Barrymore as James Temple, Lauren Bacall as Nora Temple.

Tensions develops to illustrate why bad guys really are bad, why cynical attitudes to morality should be seen as cowardly, and why the eventual triumph of the good guys is inevitable. Or so it seemed, and still does to many critics and commentators, who studiously avoid readings that are not strictly literal.

There is a predictable romantic tension between McCloud and Nora Temple, given some leeway for conflict in the script, and a less predictable sub-plot involving two Seminole Indians that finally made sense to me after investigating the connotations scriptwriter Richard Brooks and director/co-scriptwriter John Huston worked into the screenplay.

Academy Award winning (The Good Earth, 1937) cinematographer Karl Freund’s practice with German expressionist film paid off, and reminded me that film noir is not that without such influences.  For Freund this included The Golem (1920), The Last Laugh (1924), Metropolis (1927), and his later perfection of techniques for Hollywood horror pictures – Dracula (1931) The Mummy (1932), and Mad Love (1935).

The deep shades of grey that dominated Key Largo definitely suggested the ominous atmosphere of a storm coming on, and heightened the tension of the film in ways I find difficult to explain to anyone who has never experienced a tropical cyclone (or hurricane).

Karl Freund on-set with Bacall and Bogart.
Karl Freund on-set with Bacall and Bogart.

Freund would later perfect a shadowless, flat lighting while he was working on I Love Lucy. It is tempting, without disrespect to his artistry, to hypothesize that his earlier work was not just expressionist refinement, but ingenuity that met budgetary restrictions: adopting minimalist lighting that creates a dominating chiaroscuro effect requires fewer camera set-ups than shadowless lighting. In comparison, stark TV studio lighting allows for seamless transitions between multiple cameras, again eliminating the need for separate camera set-ups, if for entirely different technical reasons.

The ambient atmospherics didn’t hurt at all in heightening the tensions between the story’s antagonists, who were filmed mostly in carefully framed groups, giving the appearance of low-budget staginess to the whole film. That much is actually true. Key Largo was director John Huston’s last picture for his Warner Brothers contract, and studio boss Jack Warner forced him to shoot it entirely on back-lot sets as a budgetary discipline. The authentic hurricane scenes seen briefly in the film were stock footage from the forgettable Ronald Reagan flick Night Unto Night, shot in 1948 but not released for another year. Exactly where that footage was taken is unclear.

The Key Largo script was based on a stage play by Maxwell Anderson that ran on Broadway from 1939 to 1940. Anderson’s play was about a Spanish Civil War deserter defending the family of a real war hero against a gang of thugs at the cost of his life. Script-writing junior Richard Brooks and Huston holed up in a real Key Largo hotel for a few days in 1947 to substantially re-write the play into the film we now know.

Brooks’ real name was Reuben Sax until he changed it legally in 1943, possibly because of America’s toxic anti-Semitism (Edward G Robinson was a Romanian Jew named Emanuel Goldenberg until sometime in the early part of the 20th century) Brooks was the author of The Brick Foxhole (1945), adapted into the impressive film Crossfire (1947) just months before his collaboration with Huston. The reputation of both men suggests there was a lot of drinking and arguing involved, but we will never know whether the full extent of their intentions made it into the script, or the film, as edited for release.

Reuben Sax AKA Richard Brooks.
Reuben Sax AKA Richard Brooks.

Like Dark Passage, the plot seemed just a little too wordy to hold my attention and satisfy my expectations of the cast. But this time my waning attention was suddenly gripped tightly by an apparently innocuous exchange of dialogue I never paid any attention to before. After McCloud realizes the mysterious guest Howard Brown is actually the exiled gangster Johnny Rocco, illegally slipping back into the country, he is defiant but also unwilling to take direct action against him. His noncommittal stance, suggesting moral ambiguity, earns him Nora’s scorn, but also makes Rocco curious about his character. Thirty-two minutes into the film the following exchange takes place:

Rocco: In the war, weren’t you? Get any medals?

McCloud: A couple.

Rocco: Brave, huh?

McCloud: Not very.

Rocco: Why’d you stick your neck out?

McCloud: No good reason.

James Temple: What are you saying, Frank?

McCloud: I believed some words.

Rocco: Words? What words?

McCloud: Well, they went like this: ‘But we aren’t making all this sacrifice of human effort and human lives to return to the kind of a world we had after the last world war.’

Hah. (Turns away, walks to window, turns back to camera.)

‘We’re fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils. Ancient ills.’

Rocco: What’s that all about?

James Temple: I remember those words.

McCloud: That makes two of us.

James Temple (to Rocco): We rid ourselves of your kind once and for all! You ain’t coming back!

Rocco: Who’s gonna stop me, old man?

McCloud was talking ideals he had apparently turned his back on, but ideals well-known enough for James Temple to also know about, and with a bitter-enough aftertaste for McCloud to suggest that only he and Temple now remembered what ideals the words once represented.

I didn’t know it immediately, but in this simple exchange Brooks and Huston invoked a superstructure of thought and subjectivity about an entire historical epoch in a way that opened my eyes not only to Key Largo, but also to defining features of film noir generally. It is a topography of meaning that has nothing to do with stories, techniques, or acting, which is where most contemporary film critics look for film noir characteristics. It’s a credit to Brooks and Huston that it took no more than 140 words to communicate a vast and intricate understanding of history spanning the inter-war years as seen by those who ended up in Hollywood during the 1940s.

In some ways the story of this epoch, seen from that particular perspective, is like the story arc of a series of James Elroy novels, populated by grimy as well as glamorous underworld figures, deeply flawed and fearsome changelings wandering between forbidden milieus and sanctioned society, and the powerful who run things, but who turn out to be the most flawed and fearsome of them all, disguised only by a very thin veneer of respectability.

The backstory

To understand the story that Brooks and Huston managed to embed in Key Largo, I had to discover the source of their inspiration: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), whose words they borrowed. McCloud’s inspiration was FDR’s State of the Union address of 6 January 1942, barely a month after the most traumatic event in modern American history – the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. In that context, the words of the speech are likely to have been known to many Americans, though obscure to the rest of the world, and likely also to post-Baby Boomers in the US.

FDR packed into his speech not just his New Deal idealism, but also his own personal stature, and that of his formidable wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, symbolizing a generation’s hopes and dreams for a better life, and a fairer, more egalitarian America:

But we of the United Nations are not making all this sacrifice of human effort and human lives to return to the kind of world we had after the last World War.

We are fighting today for security, for progress and for peace, not only for ourselves, but for all men, not only for one generation but for all generations. We are fighting to cleanse the world of ancient evils, ancient ills.

A starting point for interpreting the intentions of Brooks and Huston is to look at what they might have seen as the undesirable inter-war years referenced by FDR. Although the President was referring to international affairs as much as domestic experiences, it is the latter that are the most likely focus for Hollywood’s creatives and their immediate audiences.

Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson met Eleanor Roosevelt, probably on the set of The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse (1938).
Humphrey Bogart and Edward G Robinson met Eleanor Roosevelt, probably on the set of The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse (1938).

The principal themes of American history between the wars began with the vibrant 1920s, during which it seemed that urban artistic expression, emancipated women, and unclenched Protestant buttocks might make of the nation a creative and egalitarian model of successful democracy.

However, running in parallel was the Prohibition, whose sole outcome – if not also intention – was to create organized criminal gangs running bootleg liquor, and diversifying into every vice imaginable, and some not yet known or imagined.

Nineteen twenties egalitarianism did not survive the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the gangsters did, and like all good American capitalists, their expansion plans included buying public officials and entire governments, infusing the nation from top to bottom with a brazen corruption of every public institution and office.

Unfortunately, poverty also bred envy and fear, particularly among the poorest, least educated economic refugees flooding into cities from bankrupted rural communities. In Europe this led to fascism and Soviet-style communism. In America it became a hybrid religious gangsterism. Nominally religious racketeers sought power and wealth by chicanery cloaked in paper-thin theological morality, with a small number of ‘leaders’ using easily incited lynch-mob masses as their tool to extort the nation. That practice has not yet ceased.

For Hollywood creatives, this gangsterism was experienced as censorship.

Bible-thumpers had predictably complained about the new medium of silent film as a despicable tool of unscrupulous men seeking to subvert the moral backbone of the nation. Never mind that this backbone was neither ethical nor really national.

The character of the loudest advocates for censorship was decidedly anti-Semitic from the very beginning, using many clichés about untrustworthy and despicable émigré Jews using their film studios to despoil good Christian girls, and to lead all others into moral ruin.

“These Jews seem to think of nothing but money making and sexual indulgence,” fumed Joseph I. Breen in a letter to the Rev. Wilfrid Parsons, S.J., editor of the Jesuit weekly America. The year was 1932, and the hot-tempered Irish Catholic, lately summoned to Hollywood, Calif., by motion picture czar Will H. Hays to convert a reprobate medium, was raging at the moguls who blocked his missionary work. “People whose daily morals would not be tolerated in the toilet of a pest house hold the good jobs out here and wax fat on it,” he marveled. “Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.”

— Doherty, 2007.

Faced with splintered but rising support for censorship, Hollywood’s studio bosses responded by creating the appearance of self-regulation to reverse State-based bans and avoid Federal regulation.

Leading studio bosses set up the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) in 1922, and hired former postmaster general Will Hays to be its president for the hefty salary of $115,000 a year – a small fortune in the 1920s – and an unlimited expense account. Choosing Hays, a Republican wheeler dealer, and publicly respectable Presbyterian church elder, seemed like a smart move to make Hollywood’s public face an acceptably Protestant one.

Hays acted mostly as a PR man through the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to defuse the most severe criticisms, and to advance the real interests of Hollywood: Wall Street investment money. However, the religious gangsters weren’t satisfied that Hays was tough enough when it came to convincing Hollywood to make only ‘pure entertainment’. The meaning of ‘pure entertainment’ included not just an absence of salacious scenes or bad language, but the absence altogether of any meaningful discussion of contemporary issues. Instead, films were to promote an authoritarian, blinkered conception of the world, emulating Joseph Goebbels and anticipating George Orwell’s 1984.

In 1930, in conjunction with ‘talkie’ pictures becoming the norm, adding the complication of the spoken word to the censorship equation, Hays was forced to publish a Motion Picture Production Code, known as the Hays Code. Its enforcement was apparently too lax for the Catholic flavour of religious gangsters. In 1933, American Catholic bishops established the preposterously named Legion of Decency with the express aim of generating public boycotts of films unless and until Hollywood bowed to Catholic doctrine, which was probably about greasing the right palms. It proved to be as effective a standover tactic as firebombing opposition premises, or machine-gunning competitors, was for the Prohibition bootleggers.

In the face of the Catholic Mafia’s boycotts, and already declining Great Depression revenues, the SRC was re-named the Production Code Administration (PCA), and the Catholic bigot Joseph Breen was named its head. In effect the Hays office became the Breen office.

Breen brought a bureaucratic efficiency to censorship. Under Breen’s supervision, selected scripts and films were very publicly rejected until they had been suitably vandalized and morality was seen to be ‘enforced’. Meticulous records were kept of ‘troublesome’ producers and directors. All films, no matter how short, including cartoons, were required to display a censorship certificate number with the MPPDA logo or they could not be shown in any MPPDA cinema, which were mostly studio-owned in the inter-war decades. In 1945, with Hays’ retirement, the MPPDA became the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), but the licensing notices continued to be a requirement, until 1968, when the present ratings system was introduced.

There is an almost delicious irony for all but Americans in the reality that a Catholic, anti-Semitic doctrine, funded by Hollywood Jews, imposed on Protestant America, was the most public symbol of America’s culture for almost 40 years. It was a strange contortion of rationality made sensible only by understanding that it was all driven by money. Hays continued to operate as a senior Republican, this time also with Hollywood clientele in mind when brokering political deals. Breen tempered his public anti-Semitism and functioned as a friend of Catholic sponsors, including the five New York families and their associates in the entertainment industry. East Coast gangsters made their accommodations with new West Coast confederates.

Nor was the most important question about censorship ever resolved: how does it help to ban the filmic discussion of undesirable ideas and issues when no efforts were made address their root causes? Conversely, if the root causes were acceptable, why would there be a need to ban open discussion?

It is a matter of debate how much money changed hands to pass films falling short of PCA requirements, or to create anti-competitive roadblocks for films that met every test, but it is plain that Hollywood censorship was a thinly disguised protection racket whose ultimate outcome involved money changing hands and keeping competitors (independent production companies and studios) out.

Breen remained in charge of this racket until his retirement in 1954, with only a brief stint as RKO Studio general manager between 1941 and 1942 – a job at which he seems to have performed poorly. He nevertheless did not retire to a modest subsistence, and unlike many others, his own probity was never investigated.

Hays was never prosecuted for accepting a bribe from Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corporation chief Harry Sinclair, despite admitting to it on Congressional record, and none of his other activities in the Republican team of President Warren Harding – presiding over possibly the most corrupt US presidency until Trump – was ever held against him.

Key Largo film poster.

Anyone working in Hollywood during this period knew scripts and acting had to skirt Breen’s attention. It was not yet an environment of fear, but Breen certainly infantilized the industry, and thereby laid the groundwork of an underground cinema in which adults could create art or commentary for other adults only by metaphor, revealed in allusions to widely recognised discourses – like FDR’s speech cited in the Key Largo script. Perhaps such allusions were just a little too difficult to interpret as anything but literal statements by the ignorant clerics and opportunists running America’s religious rackets. Or perhaps they were seen as just complex enough to elude the cinema-going public. Reading contemporary blogs about Key Largo, it certainly seems allusion and allegory remain incomprehensible to a contemporary audience fed on the Wikipedia propaganda platform and theological literalism.

Nevertheless, considerable ingenuity and intellect was devoted by producers, writers, directors, and actors in suggesting and hinting at matters which could not be shown or spoken of. The object was to devise messages not too subtle to be missed, but not too obvious to be blue-pencilled by the PCA. In Key Largo, for example, there is a short scene in which Rocco takes aside Nora Temple and whispers unheard words in her ear. We know he was making explicit, lewd suggestions to her because of her reaction. The lack of certainty about the precise words spoken, however, probably made the scene far more effective than had Edward G Robinson recited even the most gratuitously offensive lines. Those lines would certainly have been censored leaving the choice of cutting the scene or rendering it meaningless with vitiated dialogue. And yet the scene adds a key ingredient to the negative qualities attached to the Johnny Rocco character.

In some senses, then, the intellect and persistence that was invested in evading Breen’s scrutiny was the first, or original American counterculture, visible only to those who understood its methods, but popular enough to sustain the films that carried it with a willing patronage. It appears to be an indictment of America’s intellectual culture, or its absence, that methods employed by Shakespeare to evade Elizabethan persecution in 16th century England were unknown or indecipherable to even educated film critics like the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther. Crowther’s columns from the 1930s and 1940s are available online and inform most of the nonsense published by Wikipedia about film noir, and therefore also most of what is written by bloggers.  He was succeeded by Roger Ebert, a journeyman ‘journalist’ with not an analytical bone in his body.

An inability to understand what were the intentions of 1930s and 1940s film-makers makes it less than surprising that US critics did not recognise, in what is now acknowledged as film noir, a defiance against decrees that the social, political, and economic realities facing ordinary Americans were not to be talked about openly, lest doing so would uncover the underlying corruption making such circumstances what they were. That such issues were to be seen as somehow shameful, taboo, or even criminal. That this might well explain the popular device of conveying messages via the vehicle of ostensible crime stories – to reflect the criminalization of the ordinary.

Breen’s job was made considerably easier by wartime policy demands for unquestioningly patriotic propaganda. The problem in that period wasn’t the propaganda itself, though it certainly did not permit social or political discussion any more than Breen did, but the expectations it created.

In FDR’s 6 January 1942 State of the Union speech he had said:

We are fighting on the same side with the Russian people who have seen the Nazi hordes swarm up to the very gates of Moscow, and who with almost superhuman will and courage have forced the invaders back into retreat.

We are fighting on the same side as the brave people of China who for four and one-half long years have withstood bombs and starvation and have whipped the invaders time and again in spite of superior Japanese equipment and arms.

It was pretty clear that the President himself was recommending Russians and Chinese as commendable people and worthy allies. Films like Gung Ho! (1943) lionized the Long March resilience of Mao’s communist faction, and explained the Chinese origins of the now indelibly American war cry of ‘Gung Ho’ as the anglicized version of the Chinese communist slogan gungyè hézuòshè, meaning roughly ‘work together’ or ‘work as one’.

Films like Action in the North Atlantic (1943), headlining Humphrey Bogart and Raymond Massey, made a patriotic spectacle of delivering American supplies to Soviet Russia. Other films, like The North Star (1943), Sahara (1943), Days of Glory (1944), and Counter-Attack (1945) directly idolized Soviet resistance to Nazi-German invasion as a common-cause with America.

Many Americans might have concluded that home-grown communism, or a softer left-wing politics, was acceptable. Until suddenly it was not.

Accepting, for a moment, that the usual motive for all American history was at play – the parasitic extraction of money from those least able to resist – it was nevertheless not inevitable that freedom of speech and a democratic tolerance of non-criminal dissidence should be curtailed.

However, there were two events that moved post-war American politics sharply to the right, and allowed autocrats to subvert the American Constitution.

The first occurred at the Democrat national convention in July 1944, where former agriculture secretary and vice president Henry Wallace lost his vice presidential nomination on a second ballot, even though observers reported that the count giving the nomination to Harry Truman had been fraudulent. Whatever the case may have been, it removed the most prominent left-leaning politician from the Democratic ticket, and denied him the presidency when Roosevelt died on 12 April 1945.

The second was Truman’s uncompromising reaction to labour strikes domestically, and the 1947 Truman Doctrine, which pledged open support to contain communism world-wide. The former gave control of labour relations exclusively to employers, and the latter effectively opened the door to covert, mainly CIA-directed American imperialism, which was focused on consolidating Anglo-American agreements about the division of European colonial assets after the war.

Truman’s policy approach had the effect of directly involving private commercial interests in the execution of American policy, not sanctioned by Congress, at home and overseas.

Domestically it made it almost impossible for labour to organize and bargain collectively without being tarnished as communists. It also made it difficult to pursue any politics that could be smeared as communist. Meaning any politics at all that questioned America’s political gangster culture.

These events dimmed the prospect of that fairer, more egalitarian society Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt stood for in the minds of an entire generation, and created a great deal of distance between most Americans and the rewards of victory FDR had spoken of in 1942:

They [the Nazis] know that victory for us means victory for freedom.

They know that victory for us means victory for the institution of democracy – the ideal of the family, the simple principles of common decency and humanity.

Freedom and common decency were notably absent during the anti-communist hysteria of the later 1940s and throughout the 1950s. They were replaced with fear, ideological terrorism, paranoia, and persecution.

Not long after the war’s end, quite a number of open-minded Americans who had joined communist or socialist parties, or who had merely listened to communist or socialist opinions, suddenly became criminals for doing things apparently endorsed by the great FDR himself. A large number, probably with Richard Brooks, Humphrey Bogart, John Huston, and Edward G Robinson among them, believed in the ideal of a free society in which you could tolerate all sorts of ideas without necessarily endorsing them, and in which you could freely associate with anyone without checking their political or social pedigree first.

In 1947, however, the reality facing such people was the official American embrace of Nazi and Stalinist methods, forcing people to inform on each other, with HUAC normalizing the show trials of their public hearings as part of American political practice. Worse, they were merged with the religious gangster method of mobilizing lynch-mobs among ignorant and fear-driven masses, duped into believing they were acting in self-defense, while acting against their own interests, just as shown in the Spencer Tracey film Fury (1936).

This hybrid American authoritarianism has never quite subsided, becoming almost a Western doctrine during the presidency of one of the first and most supine HUAC snitches – Ronald Reagan.

These developments began for Hollywood in the 1940s, when the first disciplined research was conducted into the industrial and financial practices of film-making, revealing possible cartel behaviours (restrictive trade practices) by the studios, such as wage fixing, and anti-competitive agreements, particularly to eliminate competition by new entrants and independents. During the same period, set builders and designers, costumiers, make-up artists, hairdressers, and even writers, began to organize and agitate for better pay and conditions.

Matters came to a head in 1945 with a set decorator’s strike boiling over into pitched street battles between picketers, scabs, police, and Warner Brothers ‘security personnel’ (hired thugs?). The ultimate consequence of this incident was the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act of union-busting measures. Though Truman publicly recognised it as a threat to freedom of speech and association, with its requirement that all union leaders file affidavits swearing they were not communists, he was not above using it for his own policy ends. The Supreme Court eventually ruled the affidavit requirement to be an unconstitutional bill of attainder – being declared guilty of an unspecified crime without the right to legal defense – but not until 1965.

The principal beneficiaries of such legislation were studio bosses. And it was these studio bosses who saw in the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) a vehicle to rid them of the need to offer fair pay and conditions. If these men were indeed Jewish, as the religious gangsters had pejoratively accused, they had progressed from collaborating with ostensibly Catholic anti-Semitism to supporting a new, crypto-fascist lynch mob using Stalinist methods against their victims. ‘Only in America’, as the incredulous saying goes.

HUAC’s history lies in Congressional venality: serving on a committee brought access to expense budgets and the opportunity to dispense patronage. For example, there is anecdotal evidence that Samuel Dickstein, a chair of the 1934-37 Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities, was collecting more than $1000 a month from the Soviet NKVD to channel information on anti-communism, fascist organisations, and individuals prominent in either, back to Moscow. It seems money was always a more likely inducement to treason than ideology.

HUAC itself was formed in 1938 to investigate disloyalty, communism, and fascism. It became a standing committee in 1945, quickly developing an almost exclusive anti-communist focus. When the Republicans gained control of the 80th Congress in January 1947, former stockbroker and seven-term New Jersey Representative John Parnell Thomas became its chairman. He moved quickly to engage in closed-door sessions with Hollywood studio bosses in May, probably to compile lists of friendly and unfriendly witnesses to be called for public hearings (or should that be public lynching?) in Washington during September and October.

Bogart and Huston working on a CFA statement?
Bogart and Huston working on a CFA statement?

These developments led to the formation of the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA) in September 1947, whose purpose was to protest against HUAC’s authoritarian methods. John Huston was instrumental in founding the CFA, whose members included Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, John Garfield, Judy Garland, Ira Gershwin, Sterling Hayden, Paul Henreid, Katherine Hepburn, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Groucho Marx, Burgess Meredith, Myrna Loy, Vincente Minnelli, Edward G Robinson, Robert Ryan, Frank Sinatra, Billy Wilder, and William Wyler. Was there ever such a list of unlikely traitors in American history?

A CFA delegation, led by its most popular representatives, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, travelled to Washington as a PR exercise in October 1947, just before filming for Key Largo began. The trip was a publicity disaster, with no clear plan on what the delegates wanted to achieve, and no preparation for the uniformly hostile and scurrilous press reception and reportage, particularly, but not only, from the Hearst Corporation, which implied CFA members must be communists or communist sympathizers to support the Hollywood Ten.

Bacall and Bogart leading the anti-HUAC march in 1947.
Bacall and Bogart leading the anti-HUAC march in 1947.

No one asked what the crime was in being a communist, or whether the deposed ‘unfriendly’ witnesses had ever committed any actual criminal offence under American law.

Ronald Reagan was among the first ‘friendly’ witnesses to feed names to HUAC, and the contemporary scuttlebutt had it that a relatively talentless studio asset was seeking revenge for what he regarded as impediments to his career by more capable actors and the directors and producers who had, or were capable of, delivering him snubs and rejections. The Reagan pattern of self-interested snitching, and uncritical news media assumptions that people named in HUAC hearings must be guilty, held remarkably consistently for almost a decade, with notable exceptions, including by Edward R Murrow at CBS, and Texas radio show host John Henry Faulk, who courageously stood against such subversions of the Constitution and ‘common human decency’.

For Huston and Bogart, however, the FAC Washington trip was a disaster, leading to personal humiliation and some strain during the filming of Key Largo (though Bacall’s autobiography denies any ill effect at that time). They had come face-to-face with an America entirely lacking ‘the simple principles of common decency and humanity’. Instead something else had emerged in their nation. Something FDR had explicitly seen only in Nazi Germany:

We must guard against divisions among ourselves and among all the other United Nations. We must be particularly vigilant against racial discrimination in any of its ugly forms. Hitler will try again to breed mistrust and suspicion between one individual and another, one group and another, one race and another, one government and another. He will try to use the same technique of falsehood and rumor-mongering with which he divided France from Britain. He is trying to do this with us even now. But he will find a unity of will and purpose against him, which will persevere until the destruction of all his black designs upon the freedom and safety of the people of the world.

America in 1947 was none of the things FDR had conjured. Racial segregation had not been addressed at all. Mistrust and suspicion between Americans was about to hit a fevered pitch. HUAC was to foster a climate of ‘falsehood and rumor-mongering’ that allowed its most odious practitioners, Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, to institutionalize paranoia, fear, and malicious vindictiveness. Orwell’s 1984 arrived in America by 1948.

This environment was almost the perfect reflection of Key Largo villain Rocco’s challenge to James Temple when the latter angrily bristles that America had rid itself of Rocco’s kind, and he would not be allowed back.

Rocco responds: ‘Who’s gonna stop me?’

In 1948 HUAC was Rocco, and no one stopped it for many years to come – long enough to alter the entire character of the nation.

The contextualized message

With this background in mind, the film becomes a carrier for far more serious messages than the simple good guys vs bad guys routine.

McCloud’s disillusioned rejection of conventional good guy morality becomes an authentically embittered anger at the perfidy of leaders espousing liberty and equality while extinguishing it.

Rocco becomes more than just a symbol for returning corruption, standing in, perhaps, for a creeping authoritarianism delivered by HUAC and other instruments of ideological cleansing, but arriving with the storm that was the Hollywood Ten hearings. Was that the real meaning of the storm in Key Largo?

The hunt for, and murder without due legal process, of the Seminoles points at the lie of racial equality and justice for all. Perhaps it also references the metaphorical character, and professional character assassination, of HUAC’s ‘unfriendly’ witnesses.

Bogart, Huston, and Bacall on the set of Key Largo.
Bogart, Huston, and Bacall on the set of Key Largo.

Rocco’s shameful treatment of his mistress, and his inaudibly whispered obscenities for Nora Temple comes to symbolize the degradation of decency and the resurrected threat to ordinary people of an unrestrained, amoral barbarity that American service personnel had been told they had defeated with their war effort.

If there was optimism in the denouement, it arose from McCloud’s decision to take on and defeat Rocco, not for the sake of principle, but for the Temples, as a personal sign of solidarity with what he regarded as good, decent people. Perhaps like trying to support ordinary men and women in Hollywood suddenly convicted without trial of being subversives, saboteurs, and traitors.

The meaning of noir

Worse was to come for America, but the Brooks-Huston narrative was an admirable encapsulation of that original counterculture I proposed as reaction to censorship, turned into an almost secret, exclusive club between the 1940s and ’50s, as messages had to be hidden more carefully to avoid the HUAC-McCarthyist witch-hunters. It is in that solidification of American dissidence in film-making that I recognise the most revealing characteristic of what we now call film noir.

With the historical developments discussed here in mind, and the subjectivities of a distinct group of Hollywood artists and their audiences, it becomes possible to hypothesize that it is the dissent from censorship in talking about social, economic, and political realities in Hollywood entertainments that uniquely identifies and limits film noir to an American era between the 1930s and 1950s. This hypothesis proposes a lesser weight for the filmic techniques, hard-boiled stories, and other trappings so often debated as defining features of film noir, even if they are prominent in many of its examples.

Alternative Key Largo film poster.

It may well be that this is not at all what French film critics Nino Frank and Jean-Pierre Chartier had in mind when they pioneered the term for American films of a certain but undefined type in the later 1940s, but is a recognizable pre-requisite for those films all the same, and for many others. Conversely, the perspective on an America where liberty and egalitarianism have been deliberately blanked out is conspicuously missing in some other movies that have been labelled noir (for example, The Big Steal (1949)and His Kind of Woman (1951), both with Robert Mitchum, and both parodies, bordering on comedy, rather than film noir by any criteria other than occasional shadowy lighting and back-stories about crime). Gratuitous attribution of the noir label seems to be particularly the case for films from the mid-1950s onward, when the long post-war boom kicked in to ameliorate some economic inequalities, to enlarge the middle class, and to allow that middle class to soften the chicanery of ideological censorship and taboos. These changes actually diluted the subjectivity necessary for noir films, and diverted dissidence and counter-cultural effort into new directions, addressing the daily lives and concerns of a new generation.


The 1947 CFA trip to Washington led to such an unseemly news media feeding-frenzy of pure sensationalist fiction-writing about the communist sentiments of patriotic Americans defending First Amendment Constitutional rights that Humphrey Bogart felt compelled to write a humiliating apology for his advocacy of the Hollywood Ten, published by Photoplay in 1948.

He was advised that, without it, his career would be forfeit. In that apology he stated that he and others had been unaware there were actual communists among the Hollywood Ten.

Personally, I find that hard to believe, and I suspect that this was the humiliating aspect of the apology. One of the Hollywood Ten was writer Dalton Trumbo, who never disguised his alignment with Moscow, or his communist party membership between 1943 and 1948. Another was screenwriter John Howard Lawson, who had been a member of the Communist Party of America since 1934. He was an open activist for collective industrial organization of Hollywood screenwriters. His writing credits included, to that point, Blockade (1938), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Story, Algiers (1938), Sahara and Action in the North Atlantic (1943), and Counter-Attack (1945). Humphrey Bogart was the star of both 1943 films.

Another of the Hollywood Ten, director Edward Dmytryk recalls that it was Lawson’s aggressive and relentless attack on HUAC that led to the committee’s decision to indict the men for contempt of Congress. It was a bad business: while men like Lawson had committed no crime, and might well have considered themselves American patriots, albeit with a radical minority vision for their country, they were now guilty of thought-crime, in the manner of witches or heathens pronounced as heretics and condemned by religious zealots for purposes that had nothing to do with any sin or crime.

I suspect Bogart knew both Trumbo and Lawson well enough to consider them OK guys, and it pained him to have to now condemn them to save his own neck. That Bogart was compelled to apologize for believing in freedom of speech must have been a crushing blow to him, and others who looked to him as a leader in that fight.

He was controversially snubbed for an expected Oscar nomination in 1949, for his rôle in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), possibly because of his anti-HUAC stance. Although his career appeared unaffected otherwise, his health was in decline, not assisted by his heavy drinking and smoking late into the night with other members of the original ‘Rat Pack’.

He worked with Huston again on The African Queen (1952), for which Bogart won the Best Actor Academy Award, while Huston received the Best Director Award and shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Award with James Agee.

An enduring tough guy screen legend, Humphrey Bogart died in 1957, not a month after his 57th birthday, ravaged by cancer, weighing just 36 kilos.

Richard Brooks wrote more novels and scripts, in time becoming a successful director and producer as well.

In 1952 Brooks worked with Humphrey Bogart again. Brooks was the writer/director of Deadline U.S.A., with Humphrey Bogart in the leading rôle of crusading newspaper man Ed Hutcheson. Is it possible to see in his portrayal a wagging finger pointed at media owners of his era? That’s an exploration for another time.

A third Key Largo film poster.

Brooks’ films included Blackboard Jungle (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Elmer Gantry (1960), Lord Jim (1965), The Professionals (1969), and Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977). Elmer Gantry won him the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Oscars for Burt Lancaster and supporting actress Shirley Jones. It also led him to marry Jean Simmons.

His career declined in the 1970s. Brooks died from heart disease in 1991, aged 79.

John Huston won the Best Director Oscar in 1949 for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and his father won the Best Supporting Actor category.

As a result of renewed HUAC hearings in 1952, John Huston chose to exile himself in Ireland, perhaps pre-empting his own blacklisting for refusing to answer questions or delivering a characteristically blistering attack on the committee. Or maybe just because his America had disappeared, and the new one was no longer free. He renounced his American citizenship in 1964, but continued to make films, including Hollywood productions, as a writer, director, and actor, until his death from emphysema in 1987, aged 81. I remember him most clearly as Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).

Edward G Robinson was called to testify at HUAC hearings in 1950, 1952, and 1954. He refused to name any communists, but was forced into humiliating repudiations of former associations even though he had never been a communist, and his career slumped before it regained momentum in 1956.

His last rôle, at the age of 79, was opposite Charlton Heston in Soylent Green (1973). He died of bladder cancer within days of his final scenes. He was never nominated for an Academy Award, but had been notified just before his death that he would receive an honourary Oscar, which was accepted by his widow.

Apart from being instrumental in ruining the lives and careers of thousands of Americans guilty of nothing more than being the subject of rumour and innuendo, HUAC was instrumental in the Alger Hiss indictment and prosecution for perjury in 1948. Although it was unconnected to Joseph McCarthy, HUAC’s influence declined with the Senator’s fortunes, being decried in 1959 by former president Harry Truman as the most ‘un-American thing in the country today’. By the late 1960s it had become an object of ridicule and changed its name to the Internal Security Committee. Unfortunately, the methods it employed in the 1940s and ’50s have been resurrected since that time.

HUAC’s chairman in 1947, John Parnell Thomas, was later indicted for tax fraud committed in 1940. He refused to answer grand jury questions on the same grounds used by HUAC witnesses. He was tried and convicted of fraud, and served 18 months in Danbury Prison, which was also home to Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr of the Hollywood Ten, serving time for refusing to answer HUAC’s questions under Parnell’s chairmanship. It’s a shame that Cole and Lardner weren’t actually the monsters they had been made out, seeking some kind of film noir jailhouse revenge on Thomas. Instead the HUAC inquisitor was pardoned by President Truman in 1952. There is some small justice in the fact that his attempt to re-enter politics failed.

On the set of Key Largo.
On the set of Key Largo.

The legacy of the Hays Code, subsumed by HUAC and other witch-hunts, appears to be the legitimization of gangsterism, theft, and fraud, using as cover or distraction the criminalization of ideas and free speech for any reason incoherent enough to motivate hysteria in ignorant lynch mobs. Today that includes even the US Supreme Court, which is probably still bought and paid for by a cartel of gangsters not dissimilar to the ones fostered by the Prohibition.

Before its passing, however, HUAC and the McCarthy show trials killed off any last vestige of New Deal idealism, FDR’s consensus politics of egalitarianism, any hope for a viable politics of the left in the USA, and any expectation of common human decency in the conduct of public affairs, let alone the conduct of private gangsterism.

HUAC and McCarthyism also delayed for 20 years any serious American cultural critique of the kind seen in France immediately after the war, which gave us the terminology of film noir. Coincidentally, France had plenty of communists who did not betray their country or lead the world to the end of days.

Key Largo snared an Oscar in 1949, for Claire Trevor, as best Supporting Actress, playing Rocco’s alcoholic mistress Gaye Dawn. It remains an obscure and apparently underappreciated film otherwise.

For me it represents a very large key to the puzzle of what has attracted me to film noir for decades, and how I recognise such films, distinguishing them apparently intuitively from others that are not part of that closed canon, no matter what marketing people say.


Warner Brothers, 101 minutes, black and white.

Directed by John Huston. Written by John Huston and Richard Brooks from a play by Maxwell Anderson. Produced by Jerry Wald. Cinematography by Karl Freund. Music by Max Steiner.

With Humphrey Bogart as Frank McCloud, Edward G Robinson as Johnny Rocco (alias Howard Brown), Lauren Bacall as Nora Temple, Lionel Barrymore as James Temple, Claire Trevor as Gaye Dawn, Thomas Gomez as Richard ‘Curly’ Hoff, Harry Lewis as Edward ‘Toots’ Bass, Dan Seymour as Angel Garcia, John Rodney as Deputy Sheriff Clyde Sawyer, Jay Silverheels as Johnny Osceola, Rodd Redwing as Tommy Osceola, Monte Blue as Sheriff Ben Wade, William Haade as Ralph Feeney.

Selected bibliography

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Daniel, DK (2011). Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.

Dickos, A (2002). Street With No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky.

Doherty, T (2006, May 20). ‘The code before “Da Vinci”‘. The Washington Post. Retrieved on 29 June 2014.

Doherty, T (2007, December 11). ‘Was Hollywood’s famed censor an antisemite?’, The Jewish Daily Forward. Retrieved on 29 June 2014.

Durgnat, R (1974). ‘The family tree of film noir’, Film Comment, 10(6), 6-7. Retrieved from (subscription access only).

Gomery, D (Ed) (1986). ‘The Will Hays papers’, A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of Cinema History Microfilm Series. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana State Library.

Frasca, W (2012). ‘The raw deal lighting of John Alton in Hollywood film noir’, Film Matters, 3(2), 60-63. doi: 10.1386/fm.3.2.60_1

Hyland, T (2010, August 2). ‘John Huston’s war documentaries’, Cinema Directives. Retrieved on 29 June 2014.

Maltby, R (1984). ‘Film noir: The politics of the maladjusted text’, Journal of American Studies, 18(1), 49-71. doi: 10.1017/S0021875800018235

Manon, HS (2007). ‘X-Ray visions: Radiography, chiaroscuro, and the fantasy of unsuspicion in film noir’, Film Criticism, 32(2), 2-27.

Mills, M (2007). ‘HUAC & the censorship changes’, Modern Times. Retrieved on 29 June 2014.

Mills, M (2011). ‘Blacklist: A different look at the 1947 HUAC hearings’, Modern Times, Retrieved on 29 June 2014.

Naremore, J (1995). ‘American film noir: The history of an idea’, Film Quarterly, 49(2), 12-28. doi: 10.2307/1213310

Naremore, J (2008). More Than Night: Film Noir and its Contexts. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.

Neve, B (2013). ‘The politics of film noir’, in A. Spicer & H. Hanson (Eds), A Companion to Film Noir. Malden, Massachusetts: Wiley Blackwell, pp 177-192.

Orr, J (2006). ‘Californian noir: Is it European?’, Film International, 4(5), 6-17.

Orypeck, G (2013, October 13). ‘Key Largo (1948) with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’, Classic Film Freak. Retrieved on 30 June 2014.

Osteen, M (2010). ‘Framed: forging identities in film noir’, Journal of Film & Video, 62(3), 17-35.

Palmer, RB (2006). ‘Moral man in the dark city: Film noir, the postwar religious revival, and the accused’, in M.T. Conrad & R. Porfirio (Eds), The Philosophy of Film Noir. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, pp. 183-186.

Rabkin, R (2001, July 1). ‘Hollywood and anti-Semitism by Steven Alan Carr’, Commentary. Retrieved on 1 July 2014.

Robichaux, K (2007). ‘Movie censorship in the United States: A brief history’, Motion Picture Man. Retrieved on 30 June 2014.

Roosevelt, FD (1942). ‘Annual Message to the Congress, January 6, 1942’, Development of United States foreign policy: Addresses and messages of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office. Retrieved on 30 June 2014.

Schrader, P (1972). ‘Notes on film noir’, Film Comment, 8(1), 8-13.

Schrader, P (2006). ‘Canon fodder: As the sun finally sets on the century of cinema, by what criteria do we determine its masterworks?’, Film Comment, 42(5), 33-42, 44, 46-49.

Soares, A (2013). ‘Joseph I. Breen: Anti-Semite?’, Alt Film Guide. Retrieved on 1 July 2014.

Trabbish, HK (2005). ‘Scandal: A short history of the Teapot Dome affair’, Oil-industry History, 6(1), Petroleum History Institute, Meadville, PA, Retrieved on 29 June 2014.

Turner Classic Movies (2014). ‘John Huston’, Retrieved on 4 July 2014.

Vaughan, H (2014). ‘Critical theory and film: Rethinking ideology through film noir’, New Review of Film and Television Studies, 12(1), 73-76. doi: 10.1080/17400309.2013.862415

Yagoda, B (1980) ‘Hollywood cleans up its act: The curious career of the Hays Office’, American Heritage, 31(2). Retrieved on 29 June 2014.

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