Unlike much of Hollywood film noir, Key Largo (1948) features neither a hard-boiled detective nor an urban setting. There isn’t even a femme fatale. Nonetheless, it does have a gangster as its central villain, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), and emphasizes post-World War II cynicism. Rocco has traveled to Key Largo as a stop on his way back to the continental U.S. after years of exile in Cuba. He is pitted against army veteran Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), who begins the film as a drifter, lacking purpose beyond meeting the father of George Temple, a slain soldier formerly under his command.
In this context, Key Largo is a borderland, an island acting as a bridge for escape from or return to mainstream America. In Noir Anxiety, Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo argue that the free-floating anxiety of noir reflects a more primal angst related to borders and boundaries. We want to be sure of our footing, to know who and where we are. But labels are arbitrary, identities and cultures are fluid and changing, and war escalates worry over the present and future of a nation. Film noir reflects such concerns, more often than not challenging the viewer’s sense of ease and security. Duplicity is everywhere. From personal integrity to race, class, and nation, film noir emphasizes a world of ambiguity. And this makes the island setting of Key Largo ideal for its tensions and central conflict.
The film begins with McCloud’s greeting by Temple’s wheelchair-bound father James (Lionel Barrymore) and widowed daughter-in-law Nora (Lauren Bacall). The outdoor scenes are well-lit and cheerful. Although the heat is intense, the white clothing and the sunlight on the sea bring a mood of optimism, representing the island as paradise, a fantasy that will be challenged as the film progresses. In particular, the challenge will come through a hurricane that has both physical and psychic impact on all the characters we meet.
We quickly learn that the hotel on the island, owned by the Temples, is hosting a group of alleged Midwestern fishermen during the off-season. In the midst of the group is Johnny Rocco, and 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 Temple fought and died for—or just another blowhard.
Of particular significance regarding setting is the false relationship of Rocco and company with the island and the storm as well. They spend no time outdoors, and the closest we see Rocco get to open water is his bathtub.
By contrast, the people most connected to the island are a small group of Seminoles, the impoverished, disenfranchised remnant of the Keys’ 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, as the camera lingers in an objectifying manner when Nora introduces Frank to the group's oldest woman, the postcolonial gaze is 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.)
In terms of their relationship to setting, the Seminole characters represent a kind of lost innocence; they are a proud people of the past. Their world (even the island) cannot be regained, but their love of the land and each other can be—at least by caring white folks like the Temples and those they inspire, eventually including Frank McCourt. When the hurricane strikes, therefore, it is important that Rocco demands that 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 the corruption he personifies (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 in this borderland mount. Frank is increasingly drawn to Nora and the stability and honesty she represents; Rocco's girlfriend from his 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. Who will live and who will die becomes a matter of whom the island welcomes and whom it does not.
As the storm comes to an end, the film does not. Rocco kills a local police officer and blames it on the Osceola brothers, whom the sheriff then kills. Is justice impossible, we may ask, or just postponed in the chaos of the literal and symbolic hurricane of the immediate post-war era?
This is Bogart's film, however, 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 nostalgic portrayal of the Seminoles), 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 back to Cuba with their loot. It is on the ocean, an even more liminal space, that 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.