Key, The (1958)

The Key (1958), directed by Carol Reed.

An aspect of the Battle of the Atlantic I knew nothing about: ocean-going tugboats -- built for the purpose -- go out to rescue ships disabled by U-Boat attack. Like all things in that time and place, it's dangerous as hell. The ships are on fire and can blow up at any time, and the U-Boats lie in wait to pick off the practically defenseless rescuers.

That's half the story. The other aspect is an eerie on shore romance. Sophia Loren -- age 24 -- loved a tugboat captain who gave a key to the apartment to a friend, saying "Take care of her if anything happens to me". The tradition has continued and she has had a series of captains. After the first she doesn't seem to care as much, and perhaps becomes confused as to their identities. Each shows up with bad news eventually.

Trevor Howard gives his key to old pal William Holden, newly arrived for duty. The expected happens. Holden wants to be a gentleman, but he's not made of asbestos, and actually falls in love with her. Problem: she has premonitions of death -- weird "bad dream" music on the score -- and when he sees that look in her eyes, does he hand off his key to a new man?

Holden does what he always does: the thinking man of action, brave without the pretense of being Superman, hating the war but carrying on.

Trevor Howard is the sort of actor we miss these days. Out on the sea he is just what we want from the character: skilled and stalwart, a dependable rock in terrifying circumstances. And yet, after a mission he collapses and drinks too much.

Sophia Loren's startling, exotic beauty: what can I say? Love has made her a haunted woman. This was made just before she became famous.

There must have been a law that Bernard Lee, later "M" in the first James Bond films, appear in uniform in all British films featuring the Royal Navy. He and Trevor Howard were also in Reed's The Third Man (1949).

I wonder if we could call the naval portions of this film a "war procedural"? Real gear, actual locations, a look at the mechanical details of mounting this sort of military effort. The Cruel Sea would be another such.

As for ramming U-Boats: it really happened. I don't know if any of the tugs did it, but I'm sure they had the torque to do some damage. (1350 HP then, much more now). That was the only scene I remember from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an exciting sequence where those engines really make us believe.

Malcolm Arnold score.

Rather good looking DVD-R. Available for rent from ClassicFlix.