When I saw that Silver Screenings and Speakeasy were hosting a Beach Party Blogathon, I immediately wanted to write about the link between setting and sexuality in Some Like It Hot or to wax poetic over my first childhood screening of Beach Blanket Bingo (and how even typing that made me start to sing the theme tune).
But this is a film noir blog (mostly here to announce a weekly live tweet), so none of the above would do. And noir is primarily an urban genre/style, so I had to think hard. I could shove Hitchcock’s Rebecca into the category, with its crashing waves and their thematic implications. Or I could take more obvious fare, such as Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach.
Ultimately, I decided on Key Largo. For one, I wanted to watch it again, and this provided the perfect opportunity. For another, the cast is amazing and the storm brings together setting and narrative wonderfully.
Clare Trevor should be up there!
To be fair, there’s very little beach in the film. We see it mostly in the early scenes, when ex-arrmy captain and wanderer Frank McCloud (Bogart) arrives on the little island of Key Largo in the Florida Keys to pay his respects to the family of George Temple, one of the men he commanded. He is greeted with warmth by the soldier’s wheelchair-bound father James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and widowed daughter-in-law Nora Temple (Bacall). The outdoor scenes are well lit and cheerful. Though the heat is intense, the white clothing and the sunlight on the sea bring a mood of optimism that will soon shift, via both weather and narrative.
To avoid a lengthy plot summary, I want to stick to the focus on the hurricane and its importance, on the storm that brings the sea across the beach and over the island. The character who thematically brings the storm to Key Largo and the hotel owned by the Temples is Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), an exiled mobster who is sneaking back into the country via the Keys. The film will show us whether he is truly dangerous — one cell of a criminal storm that is ruining the America that soldiers like George fought and died for — or just another blowhard.
When we meet Rocco, his gang, and his gal, they are already established in the hotel, off-season, posing as a group of Wisconsin fishermen. Their relationship to the island, beach, and ocean is entirely false. They spend no time outdoors, and the closest we see Rocco get to the sea is his bathtub:
By contrast, the people most connected to the island are a small group of Seminoles, the impoverished, disenfranchised remnant of the native population. They fulfill the role of nostalgia for a lost era, even as they are objectified. The natives have come by boat for shelter from the storm, which the Temples are happy to provide in their hotel, explaining how sad it is that the Seminoles have been so dispossessed of their land and identity. (Two younger Seminoles, the Osceola brothers, were put in jail on minor charges, and we are told by James that 30 days for an Indian is like 300 days for anyone else.) Moreover, the camera lingers objectifyingly when Nora introduces Frank to the group’s oldest woman, the postcolonial gaze made plain. To support this reading, we can note that the actress who portrayed the woman, Puerto Rican-born Felipa Gomez, earned no screen credit, nor did any of the other Seminole characters, even those with lines, such as Tom Osceola, played by Jay Silverheels.
Within the film’s post-war/noir theme of corruption vs. determination, the Seminoles represent innocence, a proud people of the past. Their world cannot be regained, but their love of the land and each other can be…at least by loving white folks like the Temples and those they inspire, including Frank McCourt. When the hurricane strikes, therefore, it is important that Rocco demands the Seminoles — adults and children alike — be shut out in the storm.
Rocco condemns the natives and the worldview they represent. He keeps the Temples and McCourt close at hand, however, as they might be swayed to corruption, particularly lovely Nora and morally ambiguous Frank. James, by contrast, displays his loathing of Rocco and what he stands for. Were he not old and disabled and loved by Nora as a father figure, he would no doubt be dead. As the storm builds, so does Rocco’s determination. To get Nora, he kisses her roughly without consent, then whispers words so filthy into Nora’s ear that the audience doesn’t get to hear them.
Needless to say, this doesn’t work, and both hurricane and interpersonal tension mount. Frank is increasingly drawn to Nora and the stability and honesty (not to mention gorgeousness) she represents; Rocco’s girlfriend from the past, Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor), drowns her knowledge of the truth about her man and her misspent life in alcohol; and Rocco, like the ocean, grows increasingly wild and out of control.
As the storm comes to an end, the film does not. Rocco has killed a local police officer and blamed it on the Osceola brothers, whom the sheriff then kills. Is justice impossible, or just postponed in the chaos of the literal and symbolic hurricane of the immediate post-war era?
This is Bogart’s film, in the end, and his character will determine how we feel at film’s end. The possibility of an idyllic life may be long gone (and was always a myth, even if the film seems to argue otherwise via the Seminole), but the battle for decency and hope for the future is not. So, Frank agrees to set sail with Rocco and his thugs and get them safely to Cuba with their loot. It is on the ocean Frank will decide where he belongs, and why.
With each hoodlum he vanquishes, Frank moves further from cynicism and isolation. The drawn-out sequence in which Rocco, now alone and hidden behind a door below deck, tries to convince Frank to put down his gun is riveting. Frank has seen Rocco’s tricks, and falls for none of them. Moreover, he must reject each possible step toward corruption. The final step must be Rocco’s murder, for he is a symbol of greed and ruthlessness America cannot afford. Only then can Frank turn the ship around and head for the beach of beautiful Key Largo once more, to Nora and the indefatigable American dream.
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