Key, The (1958): Carol Reed Directs WWII Melodrma, Starring William Holden, Sophia Loren, and Trevor Howard

Carol Reed directed The Key, a WWII melodrama, set in 1941, starring three good actors: William Holden, Sophia Loren, and Trevor Howard; Howard won the BAFTA Best British Actor Award.

The scenario is based on the 1951 novel Stella by Jan de Hartog, later republished as The Distant Shore and The Key.

The film’s central protagonist is a space, an apartment, to which the key of the title offers bad luck for a succession of captains of the Royal Navy whose task is to rescue crippled ships in “U-Boat Alley.”  Each man takes the flat from his unfortunate predecessor, and the only constant presence is a beautiful Swiss expatriate woman named Stella (Loren).

William Holden plays American David Ross, a former tugboat captain now in the Canadian army, who is commissioned by the Royal Navy and assigned to command of W88, a rescue tug in dry dock due to battle damage; his predecessor was a suicide.  The tugs bring in “lame ducks,” freighters crippled near Britain by German attacks.

David is reunited with his old friend Captain Chris Ford (Trevor Howard), who commands another tug set for a mission. Chris takes David with him and they are attacked twice.

One night, Chris brings David to his flat to meet his lover, Stella (Loren), who wears a wedding ring. She had been engaged to Philip Westerby, another tugboat captain, who was killed just a day before the wedding. A friend of Chris’s, Van Barger, took possession of the hard-to-find flat and Stella stayed with him. Knowing the dangers of his job, Van Barger gives a copy of his key to Chris in order to take care of Stella.

When Chris chooses David to be the next man in line, the latter initially refuses, but under pressure relents.  David’s tug comes out of dry dock and he goes aboard to take his turn of command from the other captain, Van Dam (Oskar Homolka). Van Dam gives him lessons of survival in combat, warning him that ultimately his biggest enemy is his own fear.

Shaken by his recent close call, Chris proposes marriage to Stella.  She has premonition that he will not come back from his next mission; unfortunately, she proves to be right.

When David moves in, Stella is distant, but gradually she falls in love with him. She puts away her photograph of Philip, gets rid of the uniforms of David’s predecessors, and takes off the wedding ring. She also leaves her flat for the first time since Philip was killed. Finally, she asks David to marry her, and he accepts.

When the U.S. enters into the war, the American freighter becomes David’s next assignment, even though it is Van Dam’s turn. Its inexperienced crew sends out a continuous S.O.S., contrary to sealed orders, revealing the ship’s position to the enemy. When David finds out the situation, he tries to refuse what amounts to a suicide mission. Then, dutifully, he gives his key to the captain of another tugboat, Chris’s former mate Kane (Kieron Moore).

David’s tug is attacked by U-Boat, forcing him to order the crew to abandon ship. After being rescued, David hurries back to the flat, but Kane is already there; he had told Stella that David had been killed. When she sees him alive, she asks him to get out, hurt by his betrayal in passing on the key.

In the last scene, Stella decides to leave for London by train, and David, though not arriving at the station in time, vows to Kane that he will find her.

The movie was shot with two different endings. In the first, David gets aboard the train and there’s “happy” ending. In the other, shot in order to satisfy the strictures of the Code, David misses the train but insists to search for Stella.

Peter William Evans’ biography of Carol Reed asserts that the original ending released in Europe had David missing the train–Reed intended to convey that his vow to find Stella has no more substance than “the steam in which both they and the moving train are shrouded.”  The “happy ending” of David catching the train was made for U.S. audiences, to satisfy their expectations for a more “conventional” conclusion.