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The Key (1958 film)

The Key
File:The Key FilmPoster.jpeg
Directed by Carol Reed
Produced by Carl Foreman
Written by Carl Foreman
Based on Stella
1951 novel 
by Jan de Hartog[1]
Starring William Holden
Sophia Loren
Trevor Howard
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by Bert Bates
Open Road Films, Ltd.
Highwood Productions, Inc.
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release dates
  • July 1, 1958 (1958-07-01)
Running time
134 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English

The Key is a 1958 war film set in 1940 during the World War II Battle of the Atlantic. It was based on the novel Stella by Jan de Hartog, was directed by Carol Reed and starred William Holden, Sophia Loren and Trevor Howard.


American David Ross (William Holden), a sergeant in the Canadian army, is hastily promoted and assigned to command one of the Royal Navy's slow, poorly armed tugboats which bring in freighters crippled near England by German attacks. The main danger is from U-boats and aircraft.

David is pleased to be reunited with an old friend, Captain Chris Ford (Trevor Howard). Chris takes him out on a mission, then brings him home to his flat to meet his lover, Stella (Sophia Loren). She had been engaged to Philip, another tugboat captain, but he was killed the day before their wedding. Knowing the extreme danger of his job, Philip had given a copy of his key to the flat to another officer, Van Barger (Carl Möhner), so that Stella would be taken care of no matter what. Van Barger moved in. Then, continuing the tradition, he gave a key to Chris. When Chris chooses David to be the next in line, David tries to refuse, but his friend is insistent.

Stella accepts Chris's marriage proposal. However, she has a premonition that he will not be coming back from his next mission. She is proved correct.

At first, David refuses to move in, but eventually does so. To his surprise, she does not share his bed immediately, but as time goes by, Stella falls in love with him, unlike the others. She puts away her photograph of Philip, gets rid of the uniforms of David's predecessors, and takes off her wedding ring. She also leaves her flat for the first time since Philip was killed. Finally, she asks David to marry her, and he gladly accepts.

With the U.S. entry into the war, an American freighter becomes David's next assignment. The inexperienced crew sends out a continuous S.O.S., contrary to sealed orders, revealing the ship's position to the enemy. When David finds out the situation, he tries unsuccessfully to refuse what amounts to a suicide mission. Just as he is about to depart, another tugboat returns. Knowing his chances, he gives his key to its captain, Kane (Kieron Moore).

David's tug is attacked by a U-boat and set afire. He orders the crew to abandon ship, then rams the submarine. After being rescued, David hurries back to the flat, but Kane is already there, having told Stella that David was killed. When she sees him alive, she screams at him to get out, hurt to the core by his betrayal in passing on the key.

Later, Kane finds David drinking his sorrows away, and informs him that Stella is leaving for London on the train. There were two endings filmed; in one, David gets aboard, while in the other, he just misses catching it, but insists he will search for and find her.[2] The latter was done to satisfy the Motion Picture Production Code by showing that David and Stella pay for their sexual relationship.[2]



Trevor Howard won the BAFTA Best British Actor Award in 1958 for his performance.


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