Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:         


THE KEY MAN. Anglo-Amalgamated Films, UK, 1957; United Artists, US, 1958, as Life at Stake. Lee Patterson, Hy Hazell, Philip Leaver, Harold Kasket, George Margo. Written by J. McLaren Ross. Directed by Montgomery Tully.

   Just another British-second-feature of its time, but a bit better than it needed to be and perhaps worthy of note.

   The film opens on joyous celebration scenes of VE-Day in London, then on to a lone figure walking, somber and purposeful, through the confetti and ticker-tape onto a quiet street and up to a mysterious door. He inserts a key and — all of a sudden three guys grab him! And next thing one of them is saying, “Arthur Smithers, you are under arrest for robbery and murder, and anything you say….”

   Flash forward twelve years. Smithers has been released from jail, and Radio Crime Reporter Lionel Hulme (Patterson) is trying to find him — and the whereabouts of the loot from the robbery he did time for. Hulme is also broke, fighting with his wife (Hazell) and trying to get an advance from his boss so he can follow this thing up. In due time, he gets a lead, finds out Smithers has died in mysterious circumstances, gets followed around a lot by a shadowy stranger, finds out Smithers is not dead, talks to a fatale-looking femme who may be Smithers’ wife, gets a call from an informant who has the information he needs and he’ll come right round with it (and we know what happened to that lot!) gets in a fight, a car chase….

   … all pretty much standard stuff, and it’s not helped by budgetary constraints that keep the background rather sketchy. We’re told, for instance, that Hulme is a Radio Crime Reporter, but all we ever see of the station is a couple of nondescript offices: no microphones, no bustling secretaries or sound engineers. Hell, Monogram did better than that!

   On the plus side though, the writer took some time to populate this with real-seeming people, the producer cast them rather well, and the director added some fine flourishes; there’s some well-judged camera-work here and there, including a nifty fight in a pitch-black barbershop fitfully lighted by an on-and-off neon sign outside.

   But it’s the characters that surprised me most. Our elusive criminal mastermind proves to be a fairly ordinary chap, podgy and middle-aged, with a pretty young wife who loves him anyway. The venal stool pigeon and phony tipster have moments of actual humanity, and when we go to the wrap-up, the final scene between the amateur sleuth and the mysterious lady, where I was expecting to hear “You’re taking the fall, Sweetheart,” I heard something instead very real and quite surprising. Check it out if you can.

Editorial Comment:   One should not confuse this movie (as I did, for a while) with a film noir released in the US in 1955 entitled A Life at Stake, starring Angela Lansbury and Keith Andes.