Thursday, June 3, 2010

Best Gangster Ever

Edward G. Robinson was such a magnificent actor—so good in so many roles—that it’s kinda dangerous to pick a best-ever role. If I were pinned to the wall and forced to choose, though, I think it’d be gangster Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948).

Rocco used to be big time until the Feds caught up with him and he got deported. Now he’s planning his comeback, sneaking back into the States from Cuba to sell some counterfeit bills in preparation for a more permanent return. He’s convinced he can bring back the glory days of prohibition and he’ll kill anyone who gets in his way.

Robinson had plenty of experience playing gangsters, but he’s never better than in Key Largo. He brings a combination of arrogance and ruthlessness to Rocco, but never steps over the line into camp. It’s easy to accept Rocco as a “real” bad guy, something that makes him seem all the more dangerous.

Most of the movie is set inside a remote hotel in the Florida Keys, where Rocco and his gang hole up while waiting to sell their merchandise. Their plans are delayed by a hurricane. And there’s a scene during the worst of the hurricane that marks just how well Robinson understood the character. The hotel is creaking, glasses are falling from the shelves and the wind is howling. Someone tells about how 800 people were washed away in a previous storm. Rocco is pacing up and down the floor, looking close to panic. Here’s a danger he can’t deal with or threaten or eliminate. He just has to ride it out and the fear nearly breaks him. Afterwards, he snaps back to his usual arrogant self.

Key Largo is a superlative film from start to finish, mostly because every part in it (including both the leads and the character roles) is perfectly cast. Edward G. Robinson’s Johnny Rocco may actually be better-than-perfect casting.

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