It’s considered an insult to say that a movie looks like a filmed play, but I’ve never understood the objection. If it looks like a bad filmed play, sure, but if the objection is that the dialogue is too good to pass for “real” speech, or the characters make the most of being trapped in a confined space, then I say get over it. And even if the main thing a film does is capture the essence of a stage performance so people can see it long after the original production has closed, that’s still worth doing. After all, plenty of notable films are adaptations of plays, and some that aren’t so notable are at least worth seeing since most of us have neither a time machine nor an unlimited travel budget.
Case in point: John Huston’s 1948 Key Largo, based on Maxwell Anderson’s play. Most of the action takes place within a hotel where an unlikely group of characters have been trapped by a hurricane—wheelchair-bound proprieter James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and his daughter-in-law Norah (Lauren Bacall), visiting ex-GI Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart, who Temple’s son George served under in World War II, the gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), his girlfriend Gaye (Claire Trevor), and his henchmen Toots (Harry Lewis doing his best Richard Widmark impression), Curly (Thomas Gomez), Ralph (William Haade), and Angel (Dan Seymour). The action does move outside the hotel, including a scene involving some Native Americans who come to the hotel for protection from the storm, and the climax, which takes place on the open ocean.
The heart of the film, however, is the confrontations that take place in a single room within the hotel. As in any number of Agatha Christie plays, the characters are temporarily trapped in a confined location and must deal as best they can with each other, a setup that allows a lot of good acting to take place. After all, what else can they do but interact with each other? And there’s an inherent theatricality in the situation of strangers involuntarily sharing a small space, so that dialogue that might otherwise seem too artificial, or action that under other circumstances might seem unreasonably theatrical, can be excused even within a primarily naturalistic production. It’s called heightened reality, people, and it’s one of the great pleasures that a dramatic performance can offer.
Frank has arrived to speak with James and Norah about George’s courage during the war, and the three of them exchange heartfelt reminiscences of him. In contrast to this noble patriotism, Rocco (whose identity is not immediately revealed) and his pals claim to be in town to do some deep-sea fishing, but clearly they have something far less benign going on. They’re city boys however, made nervous by the storm brewing outside, and a nasty sequence of power plays commences. The most memorable, featuring Gaye desperately trying to get Johnny to let her have a drink, won Claire Trevor an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Key Largo will be screened at Winifred Moore Auditorium on the Webster University Campus on Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $7 for the general public, $6 for seniors, Webster alumni and students from other schools, $5 for Webster staff and faculty, and free for Webster students with proper ID.