This post is part of a William Holden blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. See the full list of participating blogs at https://thewonderfulworldofcinema.wordpress.com/2016/01/22/announcement-the-golden-boy-blogathon/
The Key — ★★★☆
It’s tempting to describe the typical William Holden character as a cad with a conscience. From Sunset Blvd to Sabrina to Bridge on the River Kwai to Network, his characters’ propensities toward leeching, philandering, prevaricating, and self-serving generally give way to belated righteousness, heroics, or grimly-accepted responsibility by the end of the third act. “Conscience,” though, may not be the most precise way to describe those shifts; when Holden’s characters change tacks, it is more often due to weakness or a lack of alternatives than to awakening convictions. Holden’s believability as a cad, and a weak cad at that, is what drives a little-known wartime tragedy called The Key.
The Key is based on a novel called Stella, adapted by Carl Foreman (who also penned the war pictures Kwai and The Guns of Navarone) and directed by Carol Reed of The Third Man fame. Neither Reed nor Foreman are known for cheery movies, but The Key is bleak even by their standards. Off the coast of England, Allied supply ships are easy targets for German U-boats. The ones that don’t sink upon being torpedoed have to be towed back to port, but the slow, aging, defenseless tugboats make even easier targets. Casualty rates among tugboat crews are staggering, and some captains have ended their own life rather than wait for the Germans to do it.
An American captain named David Ross (Holden) is the newest arrival. His old friend and fellow captain Chris Ford, played by salty character actor Trevor Howard, has been around long enough to know that his own number is almost up, so between benders he shows Ross the ropes. The most important information Ford conveys to Ross before his death is not about tugboats or how to zig-zag through enemy-infested waters, but about the key he carries with him. The key goes to a particular flat in town, and inside the flat lives a woman named Stella (Sophia Loren). Ford lives with Stella, but before that another tugboat captain lived there, and he gave Ford the key before he met his fate. That captain had, in turn, gotten the key from the original owner of the flat, the deceased tugboat captain who had been engaged to marry Stella. Now, sensing his imminent demise, Ford gives the key to Ross.
Ross is initially horrified by the arrangement. He sees and is moved by Stella’s stoic sadness, which is occasionally ameliorated by the idea that one of these captains might live long enough to marry her, as they often promise to do. Such hopes, though, only compound the tragedy of their inevitable deaths. Ross resists joining the queue, but it isn’t long after Ford dies that he uses the key and begins living in Stella’s flat.
If it is weakness that drives Ross to take up residence with Stella, it at least seems to work to her benefit. She seems happy with Ross, happier than she had been with Ford, and is happier still when he agrees to marry her. But unhappy, in the end, is the woman who puts her faith in a character played by Bill Holden; in another characteristic moment of weakness, Ross gives Stella’s key to a new captain when he sets out on what he thinks is a suicide mission.
Holden’s face at that moment of misdecision is a distillation of his acting career: fearful and doubtful, aware of his caddishness but unable to face it, wheels spinning behind hangdog eyes as if searching for a convincing reason to be a heel. He survives the suicide mission, but the new owner of the key has already gone to Stella’s flat. Angry at the betrayal, Stella won’t take either of them in. Seizing the key (the connection between agency and possession of the key is, I think, too reductive, though Loren sells it well enough), she takes control of her own destiny and leaves on a train for London.
As Holden’s characters often do, Ross meets a bad end. He races to the train station to apologize, but Stella is already gone. Ross is heartbroken, and vows to search for her as long as it takes, but the tone Reed captures as the train steam dissipates in the final shot is one of ironic futility. Ross survived his tugboat missions against all odds, but destroyed the aspect of his life over which he had more control. Holden isn’t the only classic actor who could have sold that narrative — Humphrey Bogart, who died the year before The Key was released, would have been a natural in this role — but it suits his on-screen persona. Holden comes across not as a born loser, but a self-made one, and that’s all the more tragic.
Holden, Howard, Loren, Foreman, and Reed aren’t the only reasons to watch this obscure classic. Fans of the early James Bond movies will recognize their “M,” Bernard Lee, as a dedicated, deskbound officer with the thankless job of sending other men on deadly assignments. It’s amusing to observe that this is just the sort of job M must have done during the war, too.