20 user 4 critic

The Key (1958)

Approved | | Drama, Romance, War | 6 June 1958 (UK)
During World War II, successive tugboat British Captains sent on dangerous salvage missions pass-on the key to a home-port apartment, where a lonely Swiss-Italian young war-widow lives.


Carol Reed


Jan de Hartog (novel), Carl Foreman
Won 1 BAFTA Film Award. Another 1 nomination. See more awards »




Cast overview, first billed only:
William Holden ... Captain David Ross
Sophia Loren ... Stella
Trevor Howard ... Captain Chris Ford
Oskar Homolka ... Captain Van Dam (as Oscar Homolka)
Kieron Moore ... Kane
Bernard Lee ... Cmdr. Wadlow
Beatrix Lehmann ... Housekeeper
Noel Purcell ... Hotel Porter
Bryan Forbes ... First Mate Weaver
Sidney Vivian Sidney Vivian ... Grogan
Rupert Davies ... Baker
Russell Waters Russell Waters ... Sparks
Irene Handl ... Clerk
John Crawford ... American Captain
Jameson Clark Jameson Clark ... English Captain


During World War II, tugboats conduct what are called salvage missions, picking up disabled ships. Not well equipped with weaponry, the tugs are sitting ducks for enemy fire. As such, the crew working the tugs have precarious lives, many with deep seated emotional problems. Before the Americans join the war, ex-American military man David Ross is assigned to captain a tug for the British military. He is shown the ropes by an old friend, Captain Chris Ford. Chris currently shares a flat with a young beautiful Italian-Swiss woman named Stella, who came with the flat and who lives a reclusive life there. Chris is the latest in a long line of tugboat Captains who have lived there, each who has found another person to take over the flat and the associated looking after of Stella if anything is to happen to him. That person is given a key to the flat, the key only to be used if needed. The first in the series was Phillip Westerby, to whom Stella was to be married before Phillip was killed. ... Written by Huggo

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Each night she was warm and waiting for him...and then one night she drew him gently to her...calling him softly by another man's name. See more »


Drama | Romance | War


Approved | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »

Did You Know?


Gary Cooper was writer and producer Carl Foreman's first choice for the lead. See more »


Later in the movie, when they show "the key" in William Holden's hand, the key is smooth, with no cuts. It wouldn't open any lock, anywhere. See more »


[first lines]
Captain Chris Ford: Say, can you tell me where Cmdr. Wadlow's office is?
Captain Van Dam: Has America come into the war?
See more »


Referenced in McCullin (2012) See more »


Lambeth Walk
Music by Noel Gay
Lyrics by Douglas Furber
Sung by the customers at the dance hall
See more »

User Reviews

Under-appreciated Carol Reed does it again
26 August 2005 | by raskimonoSee all my reviews

A deceptive war drama which is really a fantastical love story in the vein of Billy Wilder's LOve in the Afternoon. William Holden plays the lead, and what character does he play but a reluctant dogged, selfish seeming individual who resists authority and wears cynicism on his face, mien and posture like a pair of brown well-trodden in sandals. No one did better and he does it excellently yet again. America is yet to enter WWII but Holden is sent to join the Britisn Navy and commandeer tug boats who make rescue missions for other vessels but carry no ammunitions to defend themselves. Thus when called up, the men know they are goners, thus they are known as suicide missions. Sophia who might just be the best foreign actress completely nails her part as the unkempt woman who has lost her will to live when the war took the lives of her family leaving her alone in the world. Therefore, she becomes a kept woman in an apartment, where the key of the title is passed by men who see themselves as goners on a suicide mission to the next fellow who takes up residence till he gets his own suicide call. The scenes are gritty and the ocean scenes realistic in the style of the French new wave. Trevor Howard is fantastic as the man who breaks Holden in and their camaraderie anchors the movie. The score is strange and the way director Reed paces and uses shadows, you think it might turn into a horror movie anytime soon but he is really planting the seeds of love in our heads. Based on a novel by Jan de hartog a Tony winning playwright, the adaptation is fantastic, true and not preachy. As Holden does everything to stay alive and Loren does everything not to, the question of why do we live that everyone asks is tested. The last fifteen minutes and breaks, copies and redounds the rules of this to and ending that is well deserved and earned. Mr. carol Reed , thank you for the effort. Thsi movie which underperformed in the US was a smash hit overseas, a tradition that would become part of Sophia's career. Sophia who at this point had not shown any real proclivity for drama walks like a shining gem and shows why she is one of the few foreign actresses to be nominated more than once for the Oscar in a foreign language performance. Well done!

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Release Date:

6 June 1958 (UK) See more »

Also Known As:

Stella See more »

Company Credits

Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Westrex Recording System)

Aspect Ratio:

2.35 : 1
See full technical specs »

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