Friday, February 16, 2018

The Key (1958)

Sometimes you see a film only in part - you might have missed the opening, or had to go to bed or go out before it finished (in the days before home recording was common) - but something about it lingers in your memory, so you determine to make sure you watch it in its entirety.  But the opportunity never seems to arise: it never turns up again in the TV schedules, it never seems to be available on video or DVD and you find that information about it is scant.  Such was my experience with the 1958 British war movie The Key.  Its unavailability seemed particularly mysterious in view of the fact that it was directed by Carol Reed, one of the acknowledged greats of UK film making in the post war era.  Yet it is always glossed over in biographies or discussions of the director's work.  I was reminded of The Key a couple of years ago when I read a long out of print novel by Jan De Hartog called The Captain, which had similar subject matter and setting.  It transpired that The Key had been based on another of De Hartog's novels: Stella.  Unfortunately, I couldn't locate a copy of Stella - it proved as elusive as its film adaptation.

Recently, however, The Key has resurfaced on digital TV, with 5Spike giving it several afternoon screenings over the past few weeks.  Consequently, I've finally been able to watch it in its entirety.  The first thing to note is that, seeing the whole film, it is easier to understand why it isn't held in the same esteem as other of Reed's movies or, indeed, other British war movies of the period.  I say 'war movie', but that is part of the problem: it isn't really a war film in the conventional sense.  Not only are its protagonists not the square jawed military types beloved of UK war movies of the era, but for long periods it is actually a romance of sorts, with elements of a classic 'love triangle' and a mysterious 'femme fatale' of sorts.  On top of all that, the story, at times, features strong supernatural overtones.  Consequently, it doesn't fit neatly into a single category and films which are uncategorizable are frequently see as 'difficult' by critics, film historians and sometimes audiences.   The film's structure also seems awkward, with an episodic feel, giving it an uneven pace.  Despite of this, I still found it an enjoyable and rewarding viewing experience - but then it covers a now near forgotten part of World War Two which has long fascinated me.  So I'm biased.

The film is set in 1941-42 and concerns the ocean going tug boats which were sent to tow in crippled freighters which had been separated from their convoys. These were incredibly dangerous operations - the tugs were essentially unarmed (if they were lucky they might have an ancient 'pom-pom' gun mounted on the bow) and had to run the gauntlet both of U-Boats and German aircraft to reach their targets.  The return journey, with a huge cargo vessel in tow, could be even more perilous.  The main protagonists are Canadian William Holden, who has been seconded to the tug operations covering the Western Approaches, his former colleague Trevor Howard, who he finds already captaining a tug there and Sophia Loren, playing a mysterious Swiss-Italian refugee Howard is living with.  It transpires that Howard has 'inherited' Loren along with the flat they live in from another, now deceased tug captain - one of a long line of captains lost in action she has lived with.  Each, it turns out, has given a key to the flat to a colleague, making them promise to look after Loren if they die.  Inevitably, Howard presses a key upon Holden.

Loren, for her part, believes that she has premonitions of the deaths of the men she is involved with, (which usually occurs after they have proposed marriage to her), and is consequently seen as a Jonah by many of the sailors working the tugs (particularly Howard's First Mate).   Inevitably, Howard is killed at sea (after Loren has accepted his proposal and gone to the harbour to see him off  - her presence considered an ill omen by the crew), and Holden reluctantly fulfils his promise. In an attempt to break the circle, he eventually convinces her that it is possible for them to have a future together - but then she has another premonition.  As even this brief synopsis indicates, the film has a very uneven rhythm, alternating between maritime action and domestic melodrama, sometimes jarringly.  But the film is extremely well made and certainly never dull.  It is a credit to Reed's direction that, despite the somewhat disjointed nature of the narrative, he keeps the whole thing moving and reasonably coherent.  The land based scenes effectively create the atmosphere of a small wartime city under siege from bombing and rationing, people constantly in transit and attempting to insulate themselves from the realities of war by numbing their senses any way they can.  The maritime action sequences are outstanding, with Reed's direction evoking the sheer loneliness of being at sea in a small vessel, with nothing else in sight.  The various encounters between Holden's ship and a U-Boat which becomes his nemesis are tautly directed, full of tension as the tug's armament and armour prove inadequate time and again.

The main leads all deliver effective performances, (particularly Howard, who won a British Academy Award for his), and they are well served by a terrific supporting cast, which includes Bernard Lee, Oscar Homolka, Bryan Forbes and Rupert Davies.

As mentioned before, it is notable that the main male protagonists aren't portrayed as the usual types of British war movie heroes.  The officers aren't middle class professionals turned professional military officers fighting for King and country on a patriotic principle.  They are instead professional seamen, effectively indentured in Royal Navy service and given RNVR ranks,  To them, their work is just a job, a more dangerous version of their peace time professions.  Survival rather than patriotism is their guiding principle, with most highly cynical as to the 'war effort'.  Indeed, there is even an undertow of pacifism which can occaisionally be discerned.  Which is hardly surprising, as the source novel's author, Jan De Hartog, himself began his journey to pacifist principles as a result of his war service at sea. (A fictionalised account of this forms the basis of his novel The Captain).

The only thing I would take issue with is the fact that the tugs seen are clearly military vessels (the same Admiralty tug played all of them, changing its displayed Pennant Number as appropriate), whereas the majority of tugs used in these rescue services were actually civilian vessels, pressed into military service with their crews.  In fact, many of them were foreign tugs, which had fled to Britain in the face of the German advance across Europe.  Many were Dutch (ocean going tug work being a speciality of the Dutch merchant navy) and the source novel's equivalent to the Holden character is Dutch.  The film's only reference to this situation is Oscar Homolka's character, the Dutch owner-Captain of the tug Holden operates, (each vessel had two crews, to ensure 24 hour availability).  But this is just me being pedantic.

So, was it worth the wait to finally see the whole of The Key?  I'd say, yes.  For me, at least, it fulfilled the the promise of that incomplete late night viewing all those years ago - an atmospheric and enjoyably slightly off-kilter chronicle of a forgotten part of the war.  Its supernatural overtones lend it an agreeable sense of the slightly weird which seems perfectly in keeping with the traditionally superstitious maritime community it depicts.  In the end, The Key is an unusual war movie which provides a refreshing change from the usual kind of square jawed heroics to be found in its UK contemporaries.



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