Key, The (DVD Review)13 May, 2013 By: Mike Clark
Manufactured on demand via online retailers
Stars William Holden, Sophia Loren, Trevor Howard.
With some dusty release charts and a little historical perspective, one can get a revelatory sense of the pre-release anticipation that must have greeted even movies that are now semi-forgotten. In this case, William Holden, writer Carl Foreman, composer Malcolm Arnold and releasing Columbia Pictures were merely coming off The Bridge on the River Kwai, while director Carol Reed still had remaining (if waning) glory in which to bask, courtesy of The Fallen Idol and The Third Man — though, by now, both films were close to the one-decade mark in age. Based on a Jan de Hartog novel (Stella) from 1951, The Key is a curiosity with an unusual backdrop: the plight of tugboat captains and crews who lugged Britain’s injured warships back to safety from German bombers in the early days of World War II. All this plus the concept of having the 1958 Sophia Loren play a perpetual male roomie.
Holden plays a Canadian Army sergeant in Her Majesty’s service who runs into an old buddy played by Trevor Howard (somehow, you know they weren’t just imbibing Bosco ion the set). The latter, turns out, has a living arrangement in which the key to his ocean-side flat changes hands almost as often as Jack Lemmon’s soon would in The Apartment. Helping Howard pay the rent in this odd living arrangement is Loren as the kind of woman trouble likes to follow around — one who’s in a permanent funk since her tug captain fiancé was killed in combat, setting off a syndrome that dominates the rest of the movie. To speak in generalities so as not to engage in spoilers, a succession of men shack up for a while in the dwelling she once shared with her betrothed, obviously gaining possession of the key for the times they return at unpredictable hours. This situation landed the movie in its own water (hot) with Hollywood’s wheezing Production Code Administration — an organization that was looking silly and juvenile with the accelerated importation of more sexually credible foreign-language releases in the late-1950s but could cause trouble for a movie that presented unmarried couples sharing a living space (even if, say, Loren’s character were just around to do some ironing). This indirectly led to two endings being shot and, through a complicated mishap, both going into release in different parts of the United States. (For more confusion to the historian, the British running time is also listed as having been eight minutes longer; what we have in this release is the American version with one of its endings.)
Loren made eleven movies from 1957 to 1960 in her initial Hollywood launch, but only Houseboat with Cary Grant was a hit. The problem with The Key is that the seafaring scenes are arguably more compelling than the main story, though Holden with Loren would seem to be interesting casting — especially in the light of history, given that 1961’s El Cid and the same year’s Oscar for Two Women would soon make her a very big international star (without many great films to show for it). The Key is worth seeing, but it marks the point where Holden’s career stature started to wane (for him to have his huge comeback with The Wild Bunch, there had to be movies he came back from). One can say the same about the film in regard to Reed, though some would place the beginning of the director’s own precipitous decline even earlier with A Kid for Two Farthings and Trapeze (though I have too much affection for both, and especially the first, to concur). The nice thing about this home release is that this black-and-white CinemaScope endeavor runs 126 minutes — so to record it off the air, your setting has to be at a slower speed, which degrades and specifically fuzzes out the image. This rendering is much superior, though despite Oswald Morris as cinematographer, The Key was never, even visually speaking, one of the standout Reeds. But it does have some moments, and Loren looks good in pajamas.