Classic Film Talk: ‘The Key’ (1958)

William Holden Centennial

Today we reminisce about

The Key (1958)

Directed by Sir Carol Reed

Starring: William Holden, Sophia Loren, Trevor Howard


“In 1940 and 1941, while Britain stood alone in the darkest days of World War II, ocean-going tugs of the Salvage Service played a major part in maintaining the Atlantic convoys — lifeline of resistance…

These tugs were inadequately armed and virtually defenceless against attack by plane or submarine. At one time, every mission undertaken by the men who manned these tiny rescue ships was, in effect, a suicide mission.

They were very gallant men. But they were flesh and blood, too, and they often knew fear and despair.”



Commander David Ross (Holden) is a sergeant in the Canadian Army and has been commissioned to navigate tug boats for the British Royal Navy. He is a former tug boat captain from the United States but somehow – and inexplicably – he ended up doing his service for Canada. Though he has a great deal of experience, he is not used to the harsh working conditions that the war has brought. Luckily on his first day of training, he runs into an old friend of his, Captain Chris Ford (Howard), who shows him the ropes and also provides some well-needed companionship. One evening, Chris invites David back to his place for dinner and introduces him to Stella (Loren), a beautiful Swiss-Italian woman “came” with the flat. Chris and Stella are lovers and while she is not in love with him, she takes care of him. David notices that Stella has a framed picture of a soldier in her bedroom as well as several sailor jackets of varying sizes. He says nothing to Chris but finds the situation a bit awkward.

Stella & Chris

The next day, David makes his first outing as captain of vessel W88 and tests the capacities of the ship, being very pleased with its and the crews potential. Unlike the shadow mission with Chris, the W88 is not attacked by enemy plans and subs — at least not yet. A short amount of time goes by and Chris once again invites David to the flat, this time to celebrate his and Stella’s upcoming nuptials. As they are getting drunk at a pub, Chris explains Stella’s ordeal. She was previously engaged to be married to a captain named Philip who was killed the day before their wedding. Oddly enough, Stella had a premonition that something bad would happen before his death. Another captain took possession of the flat and Stella remained, almost as an accessory. When he died, he passed the key onto Chris and told him to make a spare copy so that when it came for him to die, Stella could continue to be taken care of by whoever had the key. David seems uneasy with the situation and refused when Chris tries to anoint him as his successor.

Not long after, Chris receives an urgent phone call from headquarters, signalling him to report for duty to perform an S.O.S. rescue mission. Once more Stella has a dark premonition and feels that Chris will not come back to the flat. Indeed, Chris does not survive the mission and David takes it upon himself to tell her the bad news. However, he does not initially stay and heads back to his crammed quarters at a local hotel. The promise of a clean, spacious flat and the beautiful Stella eventually entice David to go back. He takes up residence there but he and Stella do not become intimate right away. David considers Stella differently than every man before him and Stella falls in love for the first time since her fiancé Philip passed away. They are happy and make plans for the future, almost forgetting the terrible state of war. What will become of the two lovers?



The Key is based on the novel Stella, written by Dutch author Jan de Hartog in 1951. Hartog had been deeply personally affected by the events at the outbreak of World War II, first joining the Dutch resistance and later becoming a captain in the Dutch merchant navy. Before that, Hartog had accumulated working experience on fishing boats as an adolescent and teenager, never staying far from the water and harbours. He first wrote about tug boats in his 1940 novel Hollands Glorie, which highlighted the complicated and unrewarding jobs that these vessels’ captains and sailors had to endure. Clearly Hartog had an immense love of the sea and the pirate’s life, penning several novels on the subjects. These novels elevated Dutch patriotism and the Allied effort in the war, making him a wanted man by the Nazi Gestapo. After spending a few years in hiding and after his military service was completed, Hartog moved to the United States where he would spend the rest of his life dedicated to Quaker studies.

It is for that reason that I am unable to determine to what extent the film was faithful to the novel. Nevertheless, the film adaptation was in good hands. The screenplay was treated by Carl Foreman and the direction was accomplished by brilliant British director Sir Carol Reed. Knowing that the novel was highly detailed in regard to maritime efforts during the Battle of the Atlantic, I can say that the film did a noble job of bringing that to life on-screen. A decent amount of screen time is dedicated to portraying life on a tug boat: getting seasick, making sure controls are in working order, dealing with unexpected and life-threatened conflict in captain’s quarters, towing damaged vessels, and even abandoning their own ships when necessary. It is also interesting to see how war has affected life as a whole. The British military is unable to acquire weapons to arm the tug boats with at least minimum self-protection. Also, there is a dire housing shortage. When Davis is told that he will be staying in a hotel, he expects a lousy, no-frills room but when he gets there, he discovers a dark and windowless room that has six beds. The only reason that he even has a place to sleep is that the man before him committed suicide.

From this, it is probably no wonder that David ultimately decides to go to the flat which is a rare commodity. He seeks more reasonable comfort though it is unclear if he is as anxious to have a sexual encounter with Stella. Since David has always held a certain disdain for Stella being a kept woman of sorts, it is likely that he was more attracted to the thought of a welcoming home than of a beautiful woman. Of course, there is little doubt in my mind that the perk of bedding her did not eventually help him to make-up his mind. David’s mixed feelings about Stella being a live-in whore will always remain with him, almost seemingly preventing him from forgiving her and accepting her as a decent human being. His struggles are voiced when he says to Stella: “It’s too bad that you are what you are. But you are, aren’t you?”

Censorship at the time prohibited certain language from being used so viewers can only assume that Stella is what she appears to be. Even Stella’s dialogue is grossly naked in vocabulary though full of intention. She says to David: “Oh, I see. You’re shocked. I’m sorry. I didn’t think those rules were so important anymore now that people are so busy killing each other.” In other words, Stella is taken aback that David is judging her for being sexually promiscuous and living in sin when, in her eyes (and in those of the other men), she is just trying to survive in a time of global crisis. There is something haunting about this film, perhaps in the way that it was filmed that makes you replay certain scenes in your mind. The subject matter surrounding Stella’s predicament is still very provocative today.

This, along with Fedora, is one of the more pleasant surprises that I have enjoyed during this film salute in honour of William Holden’s 100th birthday.


Golden Holden

1957 had been one of the best for William Holden career-wise after starring in the highly successful film The Bridge on the River Kwai. It is unknown whether he willingly chose to work with Sir Carol Reed but if he did, he surely knew how to seek out the best directors in the business. Again, Holden appears as the solo Yank amongst a score of British actors and he uses this difference to his advantage. He definitely sticks out of the crowd with his suave good looks and his usual light-hearted approach to certain situations although this film is more serious than his past ones, so the comedy is not prevalent and when it does occur, it is quite subtle. Holden fills the shoes of a tug boat captain very well and once again provides an amazing performance in The Key.

Helping him greatly was fantastic kinship with Trevor Howard and tender chemistry with Sophia Loren. It was entirely believable that he and Howard were good friends in real-life; in fact, they would once again co-star in 1962’s The Lion. Loren was beautiful despite her physical appearance being very toned down to reflect the more conservative way of wartime living. The filming of The Key took place relatively early in her career and showed off her immense talent as an actress.


Publicity & Behind-the-Scenes


This is not actually a trailer but is simply a short clip from the film, as a proper trailer does not seem to exist.