The Key (1958)


William Holden (Sunset Boulevard) plays a WWII tugboat captain whose job consists of assisting gunned down ships. The job gradually starts affecting him.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“In this work, one must learn how to live with fear.”

Bleak, depressing World War II drama does a fantastic job depicting the stress of battle. The Key also presents in vivid detail how war leads to despondency in soldiers and their loved ones, a real and very serious problem that is often overlooked.

Writer/producer Carl Foreman (High Noon, The Guns of Navarone and Born Free) wrote the screenplay. The Key was Forman’s first credited job after being blacklisted in America for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The screenplay was based on the 1951 novel Stella by Jan de Hartog.

Characters and situations are adequately fleshed out and developed by Foreman. The Key also benefits from director Carol Reed’s (The Third Man) stylish direction. Reed does get a little carried away with dutch angles, but I thought the movie was extremely well-made. Oswald Morris’s (Oliver!) atmospheric cinematography and Malcolm Arnold’s (The Bridge on the River Kwai) moody music score are big pluses.

William Holden is superb as an American soldier serving in the Royal Canadian Navy struggling with an emotionally draining job. Holden vividly conveys the idea of a man worn down by war’s cruelties. Sophia Loren (Two Women) is also great as a Swiss-Italian woman who has a strange arrangement with tugboat Captains. Loren’s excellent performance adds extra dimensions to the overly downbeat storyline.

Rounding out the cast of excellent actors are Trevor Howard (David Lean’s Brief Encounter) as Holden’s pal and Loren’s lover, Bernard Lee (“M” in the James Bond franchise) as a man in charge of a salvage unit and Oskar Homolka (Hitchcock’s Sabotage) as a tugboat Captain. Director/actor Bryan Forbes (Séance on a Wet Afternoon and The Stepford Wives) plays Weaver, a crew member on a tugboat.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Key is polished, gritty and very suspenseful. While I didn’t like the ending (apparently two endings were shot, but the darker conclusion preferred by director Carol Reed was rejected by U.S. distributors), this is still an engrossing, surprisingly intelligent war drama about little-discussed WWII operations. It’s a must-see movie for fans of Holden, Loren and/or director Reed. B&W, 134 minutes, Not Rated.

12 responses to “The Key (1958)

  1. I started reading your review and thought, wait, this isn’t the movie I’m thinking of…oh, I’m confusing it with ‘The Locket’! Anyway, this sounds like a good one, though it surprised me that Carol Reed directed it. Did you find it to be odd subject matter for the director? And too bad that good ending isn’t out there somewhere…typical of the US to futz with someone’s film and make it worse in the process!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked this too. Unusual subject matter – I’m guessing it’s probably the best film made about WWII tugboats! The psychological elements add to its interest. It’s interesting to read that it could have had a darker ending, that might have been more suitable.

    I think outside two or three famous films Carol Reed is a bit underrated. There are some good ones like this that should be much better known.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the movie taught me a few things about tugboats and their important job during WWII! Anyhow, Reed is indeed underrated. He was on fire throughout the 1940s. Later, like David Lean, he started moving away from small b/w films into expensive movies in color. I liked Trapeze and Oliver. Agony and Ectasy wasn’t too shabby either.


  3. I need to see this as I’m always on the look for interesting war drama’s. Especially when they try something a little different. Having Sophia to gaze at will be a bonus. Plus support from Bernard Lee and Trevor Howard has me hooked.
    I still haven’t seen Fallen Idol. I need to add both this at that to my colossus to watch list.
    PS sorry for my slackness on comments on your reviews. Been struggling getting in the zone of late but I will be doing catch up soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fallen Idol is fantastic! And Reed’s Odd Man Out is great too! Anyhow, while I always appreciate your comments, don’t feel obligated to read and/or respond… I know from personal experience that it is impossible to keep up with everything posted around here! Stay safe!


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