Key Details

THE KEY is another of these latter-day Carol Reed movies with a shaky reputation: I went in expecting a leaden piece of White Elephant Art, forgetting how much I sometimes enjoy WEA when it’s done with passion and energy. Will nobody stand up for the poor pale pachyderm?

Carl Foreman provides the script, based on Jan de Hartog’s novel, StellaTHE INSPECTOR (aka LISA), also based on a JDH book, covers in some ways similar ground: boats, war, a traumatised girl. This is much better than Philip Dunne’s movie, which was authentically turgid.

Here, things actually build pretty compellingly. The set-up is interesting: tug-boat captains in wartime whose mission is to rescue lame duck ships from the U-boats. Since any ship crippled is written off as a loss, any ship saved is regarded as pure profit, so the work of the tugs is under-appreciated and consequently under-resourced: they have barely any working defenses and no anti-shell plating.

Reed’s dutch tilts look even nicer in widescreen.

The titular key belongs to a flat containing Sophia Loren, and is therefor a highly prized possession, already passed down from slain captain to slain captain several times before its current owner, Trevor Howard, who plays a sozzled old sea-dog not a million leagues from his real-life persona. William Holden plays another captain (he’s enlisted in the Canadian navy before Pearl Harbor) who inherits key, flat and woman when Howard buys it.

The point is, as Holden slowly understands, that this is not a merely commercial arrangement for Loren, but a matter of psychological necessity. After her fiance was killed at sea, she has filled the void with a succession of captains, all standing in for the original. The question for Holden is, can he replace the original loss and be loved for himself? Also, can he avoid going the way of the previous tenants?

If THE MAN BETWEEN served up lots of moody visuals that sometimes felt far more evocative than their surrounding narrative, this movie does build to some powerful dramatic scenes which utilize Malcolm Arnold’s haunting music and Oswald Morris’s astonishing, lambent cinematography to full effect. A scene in which Holden, by now believing himself doomed, seems to see Howard, risen from the grave, gazing balefully at him across the bridge, creates a frisson of true supernatural terror, resolved yet disspelled by a cut which shows the impression to be a trick of the mind —

It’s a trick borrowed from Hitchcock’s SABOTAGE, but it’s even better here. That sharp, low-key sunlight hitting Trev!

Loren, of course, is excellent, with a striking ability to suggest trauma, deep mourning, and compartmentalized psychological spaces unreachable by man. And one has to appreciate any film which gives her a scene with Irene Handl. Howard is splendid, if a little uncomfortable to watch when cosying up to Loren: there’s a pulchritude imbalance that feel’s a touch bestial/necrophilic. And Holden unites the show, progressing into the darker scenes very naturally, as he always did: in a way, it’s his strongest territory, despite his undoubted light comedy skills. Give him a marked man to play and he shone.

Only a slightly episodic start, and an inconclusive ending, mar the movie. Reed’s filming of the sea battles is impressive, with just a couple of models and process shots amid the footage of real vessels captured under unpleasant and risky North Sea conditions. Reed’s best bits often demand a multitude of angles, so there was no way to cut corners here, and the director was also working under the handicap of knowing nothing about ships: he would blithely instruct his submarine commander to surface at a given mark, unaware how impossible this was.

Here’s Oscar Homolka’s best scene! A wonderfully compact actor.

15 Responses to “Key Details”

  1. Homolka began his career with Brecht — in that great misanthrope’s early cabaret-theater days.

  2. Would love to have seen the young Homolka strutting his stuff then!

  3. Ulp, well I’m sure William Holden can be trusted not to get drunk and kill himself by accident.

    And pulchritude imbalance between Trevor Howard and Sophia Loren? Not from where I’m standing. Voluptuousness imbalance, yes.

  4. Maybe the difficulty is Trev is playing romance and acting drunk more or less at the same time. It’s a long way from Brief Encounter! But probably his finest romantic role of later years.

  5. Christopher Says:

    Oscar ,there giving another great rundown on fear,just as he would for pain and sver vwords in I Remember Mama.

  6. He’s a walking dictionary — fat, solid and very dry.

  7. He’s teriffic as the pop psychologist in The Seven Year Itch

  8. Christopher Says:

    hes pretty amusing in The Invisible Woman..

  9. I love him in best in SABOTAGE as Verloc.

  10. A lovely late appearance is Ken Russell’s The Billion Dollar Brain, where the Russians are the goodies and the Americans the baddies. He’s an avuncular KGB man.

  11. I just watched Homolka as Paul Kruger in Rhodes of Africa: he completely dominates when he’s onscreen, playing a fascinating character who is in many ways more compelling than Rhodes, at least as the film presents the two men. That may have been his first English-language film, though he appeared in several 1936 releases.

  12. It’s an intriguing movie, though not classic Viertel. I think the decision to whitewash Rhodes as much as possible rather robs Huston of anything worth playing, but you’re right that Homolka’s very strong. I liked the chief too!

  13. It’s the only Viertel I’ve seen, unfortunately. Although the film isn’t always terrifically flattering to Rhodes, it’s absolutely unquestioning on the issue of whether he was right and as you say I think this takes away much in the way of challenge for Huston. In any case, the film’s amazing brevity requires almost comical telescoping of the action. I’ve been trying to find out more about the actor who played Lobengula but haven’t had much success. One website suggested he presented himself as a relative of Lobengula, but I think I’d need to dig into contemporary material to discover more.

    I also liked Frank Cellier’s turn; his first scene is especially good.

  14. Oh, Cellier’s great, and even better in Viertel’s masterpiece The Passing of the Third Floor Back, where he gets to play a kind of Satan figure.

    Yes, I’d heard something about Ndaniso Kumala being related to Lobengula… don’t the film’s credits hint as much?

  15. I didn’t notice that in the credits; will have to take another look. I have a copy of The Passing of the Third Floor Back: I really must dig it out, although I seem to remember the quality isn’t great. The title has always been one of my favourites.

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