Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Bogie and Bacall's Last Flick

Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart): When your head says one thing and your whole life says another, your head always loses.

Some 30 years ago, Bertie Higgins had his only hit song — well, it was a semi–hit — "Key Largo."

It was inspired (supposedly) by the movie of the same name that made its theatrical debut 65 years ago today. I liked the movie, but I never liked the song.

I guess I was too much of a movie purist at that time, in spite of my tender years. But I was a Humphrey Bogart fan, still am, for that matter, and I didn't like to see his work trivialized.

I had seen most of his movies (I've probably seen them all by now), and I knew the song wasn't entirely accurate — nor was it entirely about "Key Largo," the John Huston–directed film noir set in Florida in the years after World War II.

A recurring line gave it away — "We had it all / Just like Bogie and Bacall / Starring in our own late late show / Sailin' away to Key Largo."

Bogart and Lauren Bacall did co–star in "Key Largo," but neither of their characters sailed there. Bogart arrived by bus in the earliest scene of the movie, and Bacall's character was already there, the daughter–in–law of the proprietor of a Key Largo hotel.

I guess Bacall could have sailed there when she first arrived — unless she was born and raised in Key Largo. It was never mentioned in the movie.

(The proprietor was Lionel Barrymore, who was only a couple of years removed from his infamous turn as Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life," the sixth–most villainous character in movie history, according to the American Film Institute. With Barrymore confined to a wheelchair in this one, a new generation of viewers who know him only as Mr. Potter may find it astonishing that such a reprehensible individual in one movie could arouse such feelings of empathy from the audience in another.)

That song also made use of lines that were familiar from "Casablanca," which was a Bogart movie as well — but his co–star was Ingrid Bergman, not Bacall.

Oh, well.

I didn't care for the song, but I did like the movie.

It was the last one that Bogart and Bacall made together, and it was the most chaste of the four, by far.

Movie viewers who went to see it at the theaters in 1948 expecting to see another "To Have and Have Not," in which the Bogart–Bacall on–screen relationship sizzled, undoubtedly were disappointed. Bacall's character was the widow of one of Bogart's Army buddies, a woman who had just about given up on everything but there was still a smoldering sensuality to her.

Beyond a rather liberal interpretation of glances between the two, though, there was no overt indication of an attraction between Bogart and Bacall, with the possible exception of the final scene (and their only interaction in that scene was via ship–to–shore communication technology).

In what was perhaps an odd response, I was reminded of another Bogart movie — "The Petrified Forest" — when I first saw "Key Largo." In both movies, a group of people were being held hostage by a gangster (played in "Key Largo" by Edward G. Robinson).

But there were differences between the movies that, I suppose, reflected changes in America and the world from the depths of the Depression, when Bogie made "The Petrified Forest," to the postwar environment, in which "Key Largo" was made.

In "The Petrified Forest," there were noble perceptions of self–sacrifice, and ample justification was given for the casualties of World War I. It had been, after all, "the war to end all wars."

In "Key Largo," the emphasis was on one's moral obligation to oppose evil and the value of individual lives. (I always thought Claire Trevor, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, was a good example of the latter. She played Robinson's alcoholic and frequently abused girlfriend who showed plenty of dignity in spite of Robinson's demeaning treatment of her.)

In between the two movies, of course, was World War II, probably the greatest and costliest clash (in terms of both lives and treasure) between good and evil in world history. It changed how many people perceived things. Given the fact that "Key Largo" was made against the emerging backdrop of the Cold War, it is hardly surprising that there was a strong we're–all–in–this–together feeling to it.

Bogart himself was the ideal example of this. His character in "Key Largo" began the movie with no confidence in himself and ended it recognizing that it was necessary to remain, as Donne put it, "involved in mankind."

A nice reminder — then and now — that there are still battles worth fighting and winning and even causes worth dying for.