Pros:battle scenes, Oswald Morris photography, Malcom Arnold music, Oskar Homolka
Cons:the character of Stella and the apartment setup
The Bottom Line: Fast-forward through the apartment scenes? (but not the other terrestrial ones)
The 1958 movie "The Key" is an outstanding "guy movie" about combat in the North Atlantic in 1941 mixed with a dopey mystical romance "chick flick." I believe that what is very good is mostly attributable to director Carol Reed and cinematographer Oswald Morris and that what is boring pap is partly attributable to Jan de Hartog who wrote the book, Stella on which the movie was based and substantially the fault of producer/screenwriter Carl Foreman. I'll get to the contributions of the actors eventually, but first need to unpack the credit line and the blame line above.
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The original novel(la) celebrated Dutch and British tugboat captains and crews who rescued cargo ships taking supplies from North America to England before US entry into World War II. The box-office prospects of celebrating Dutch heroism were dubious, so Foreman made the newly arrived captain an American and cast William Holden (fresh from "The Bridge on the River Kwai") in the role. The captains with experience rescuing torpedoed ships were played by Trevor Howard (who had tried to impart his knowledge to a cocky American in Reed's greatest film "The Third Man" and also starred in Reed's adaptation of Conrad's "Outcast of the Islands") and Oskar Homolka (cast as a Dutch skipper named Van Dam although Homolka was Austrian by birth and accent).
As I've already asserted, the best parts of the movie involve the unsung heroes in de facto unarmed small boats out in the deep blue sea with German U-boats that have made kills. I include the command center scenes as part of this naval warfare movie. Then there is the other movie, also derived from de Hartog's novel in which a young woman shares an apartment with one doomed captain after another. De Hartog's character Stella was British, but Foreman cast Sophia Loren who had made both literal and metaphorical splashes in her first English-language role in "The Boy on the Dolphin" (and was shooting in "Desire Under the Elms" when production of "The Key" began). Foreman made her character Swiss (from southernmost, Italian-speaking Switzerland) to avoid the problem of her being considered an enemy alien. I guess this southernness was supposed to fit with superstitiousness, but the role wasted Loren's considerable vivaciousness in playing a numb woman who does not dare to respond to the series men whose deaths she foresees. Mostly she makes coffee and looks forlorn.
She does not appear until 20+ minutes into the movie, when the American volunteer (by way of Canada) David Ross (Holden) is invited back to the flat of an old buddy, Chris Ford (Howard) after accompanying him on a mission to see what the rescue jobs are like. Resident in the flat is Stella (Loren), who has lived there with a series of other rescue tug captains who have died (the dead men's uniform jackets fill her closet). No one calls her a "black widow," but Van Dam warns David she is bad luck.
The character of Stella does not makes sense to me. Partly this is due to censorship in which she has her own room rather than sleeping with the succession of soon-to-be ghosts. Although I cannot recall ever seeing Loren being any good in an English-language drama, she was not only incredibly beautiful, but she really could actit Italian, fluent as her English is. I greatly doubt that anyone could have made Stella a convincing character as she numbly watches one uniformed man replace another as her flatmates (each makes and gives to a peer a key to the flat for when he does not come back), and has premonitions of disaster. (Loren is actually quite good at looking terrified before the premonitions, but their bases are so very, very unsubtle that they would unnerve someone devoid of superstitions).
It's not so much that the film founders on land (the scenes in a hotel and in the command center are just fine) as that it founders in failed attempts at eeriness. (Reed had certainly showed that he could portray menace and misunderstanding in such films as "Odd Man Out," "The Fallen Idol" and "The Third Man"). Love stories slow down a lot of action flicks, but this one is hobbled by way too much exposition as well as by the inchoate mysticism.
There was, apparently, an American version with a happy ending, which may or may not be the version that ran 134 minutes rather than the one running 121 minutes that I saw.
The movie has a fairly flamboyant but never inapt music score by Malcolm Arnold. I've already mentioned the outstanding cinematography of Oswald Morris (who also lensed the delightful spy comedy "Our Man in Havana" for Reed, and Reed's Oscar-winning "Oliver!", and won his own Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof; among his other outstanding contributions are the photography for "The Man Who Came in from the Cold" and "The Man Who Would Be King").
Holden was pretty good, though I have never been able to take him seriously as a romantic lead (whereas he was very convincing as an antiheroic cynic in "Sunset Boulevard," "Stalag 17," etc.). Howard was also pretty good in a blustery mode. (He won his only BAFTA for this!?) Homolka either had the best part or made more of it than the other performers made of theirs.
Ah yes, Carl Foreman: what of him? I attribute much of what I don't like in "High Noon" (the Grace Kelly role) and some of the historical nonsense in "Bridge on the River Kwai" to him. The women are either marginal or unbelievable in most of the movies he wrote or adapted (MacKenna's Gold, The Guns of Navarone, The Victors, Cyrano de Bergerac, Home of the Brave, Champion [exceptions are "The Men," "Hatful of Rain," and "Young Man with a Horn"]). I think he was considerably less profound a thinker than he believed he was, but could write action scenes when he laid off the self-importance and attempts at symbolism (that in "MacKenna's Gold" is equally heavy-handed and silly).
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