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This atmospheric CinemaScope war melodrama arrived during the early phase of director Carol Reed's movement into big budget, star-laden studio projects. Already established with smaller scale, cynical European dramas like The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949) and Odd Man Out (1947), Reed made an abrupt switch to splashy MGM-style entertainment in 1956 with the bizarre, psychosexual circus melodrama, Trapeze, featuring Gina Lollobrigida. Showing an admirable affinity for designing vehicles for international glamour queens, he then recruited Sophia Loren for his next project, Stella, the supernaturally-tinged 1958 World War II romance which would eventually be released as The Key. The older and more "worldly" Ingrid Bergman was also considered, but Loren - who, fresh from the much lighter aquatic project Houseboat (1958), was already contracted and insisted on keeping the role - stayed firm. The primary opponent of Loren's casting was producer Carl Foreman, the American producer of High Noon (1952) whose leftist tendencies led to his blacklisting and a flight to Europe for continued employment, where his work on prominent films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) had to be conducted without credit.
Hollywood's brawniest romantic lead thanks to the recent Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and Picnic (both 1955), William Holden was the obvious choice for the lead role of David Ross, a tug boat captain who becomes the fourth recipient of a duplicate key belonging to the apartment of pretty Stella, who seems doomed to romance each possessor of the key shortly before his death. Since the tugboat repairs conducted by David occur in a hotbed of U-boat activity, his demise also seems imminent - but his machinations to avoid the hand of fate provide the opportunity for a different kind of outcome. Though their chemistry seemed effortless onscreen, Holden found himself overwhelmed by his leading lady: "She didn't walk into the room, she swept in. I never saw so much woman coming at me in my entire life. Beautiful women have always thrown me. I really don't know how to handle them, especially when they're actresses that I work with. You have to work with them terribly intimately, particularly in the love scenes, and unless you play it neutral you may well have a situation on your hands." (Warren G. Harris, Sophia Loren: A Biography.)
The film was shot over a fifteen-week period in Portland, England, at Her Majesty's Naval Dockyard, where Reed's less then stellar sailing abilities made an impression on the cast. Bryan Forbes, a young actor who later went on to a successful directorial career, recalls that Reed "was the worst sailor of all and seemed to have a mental block about the mechanics of operating a ship at sea. He was consumed with his own private visions, and once he had decided how he was going to shoot a particular sequence he couldn't understand why some of his instructions were impossible to carry out...Yellow of face, chain-smoking and denying himself any solid sustenance, he stared without comprehension as those around him argued the impossibility of his suggestions." (Nicholas Wapshott, Carol Reed: A Biography.)
Due to its potentially controversial subject matter of a heroine of "loose morals," The Key was shot with two different endings one melancholy, the other romantic. The sad ending - meant to appease censors who might oppose a happy union between the leads and Reed's own personal preference - resulted in shorter prints which circulated briefly in America, confusing viewers who were confronted with two completely separate outcomes.
Loren had recently scandalized the Catholic community with her remarriage to producer Carlo Ponti, but the scandal didn't seem to affect her film career; reviews for The Key were quite complimentary, with The New York Times dubbing it "a thoroughly brilliant blending of vivid war action and generally poignant romance," while box office was respectable enough to bolster its stars' already robust careers. With Houseboat and Desire Under the Elms opening the same year, Loren enjoyed consistent box office prominence and received considerable awards promotion from three different studios; though the bid didn't pay off, she and her co-workers continued to spend their careers for the remainder of the decade in high style.
Producer: Aubrey Baring, Carl Foreman
Director: Carol Reed
Screenplay: Jan de Hartog, Carl Foreman
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Film Editing: Bert Bates
Art Direction: Geoffrey Drake
Music: Malcolm Arnold
Cast: William Holden (David Ross), Sophia Loren (Stella), Trevor Howard (Capt. Chris Ford), Oskar Homolka (Capt. Van Dam), Carl Mohner (Van Barger), Kieron Moore (Kane).
by Nathaniel Thompson