‘The Third Key’: A Subtly Constructed British Whodunit

This police procedural takes you through the clues to find the criminal.
‘The Third Key’: A Subtly Constructed British Whodunit
Detective Superintendent Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins, L) and new partner Detective Sergeant Ward (John Stratton) studying clues together, in “The Third Key.” (Ealing Studios)
Ian Kane
2/19/2024
Updated:
2/19/2024
0:00
NR | 1h 36m | Crime, Drama, Mystery | 1957 

When it comes to crime dramas that focus on police procedurals, the British have mastered the subgenre. They use subtlety and ever-twisting narratives; their stories leave opportunities for speculation, since you never quite know who the perpetrator is until the climactic third act.

This filmmaking method requires deft writing, direction, and acting on the part of the entire cast and crew. Likewise, viewers are expected to exercise a degree of patience as clues emerge. It’s a slow-burn, cinematic version of putting together a massive puzzle, slowly trying to fit each piece into the larger whole.

Detective Superintendent Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins, L) and Chief Superintendent Jim Malcolm (Geoffrey Keen), in “The Third Key” (Ealing Studios)
Detective Superintendent Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins, L) and Chief Superintendent Jim Malcolm (Geoffrey Keen), in “The Third Key” (Ealing Studios)

Directed by Charles Frend and released in 1956, “The Third Key” (also known by its original title “The Long Arm”), is a perfect example of the British police procedural. With its ever-winding storyline, the film offers a captivating narrative to engage the audience.

Detective Superintendent Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins, L) and Stone (Sydney Tafler) have a little verbal face-off, in “The Third Key” (Ealing Studios)
Detective Superintendent Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins, L) and Stone (Sydney Tafler) have a little verbal face-off, in “The Third Key” (Ealing Studios)

Things kick off one dreary night in the Long Acre district of London at the closed business offices of Stone and Company. The silhouette of a man emerges from the shadows and approaches a heavy-duty safe. Surprisingly, the thief doesn’t have to force his way into the safe; he already has the key to it and merely opens it, pilfers the money inside, and locks it back up.

Unbeknown to the mysterious thief, a silent alarm has been triggered and police at Scotland Yard have dispatched one of their roving units nearby to check the alarm’s source: Stone and Company.

When the police arrive on the scene, they encounter a night watchman who tells them that nothing suspicious is going on. He even welcomes them in and shows them around the offices. While inspecting the offices, they come across the safe but it looks untouched, so they depart.

The very next day, the business’s owner, Stone (Sydney Tafler), reports to the police that a considerable amount of money is missing from the safe. Therefore, Scotland Yard Chief Superintendent Jim Malcolm (Geoffrey Keen) assigns Detective Superintendent Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins), and his new partner Detective Sergeant Ward (John Stratton), to the case.

Halliday interviews Stone, who is initially unhappy about what he considers to be a sloppy job of police work, since the safe was so easily burgled. However, Halliday soon deduces that Stone’s usual night watchman was in the hospital during the crime, and therefore, the one that the cops met on-scene was an imposter.

Besides the phony night watchman, the police don’t have much to go on until Malcolm and Halliday learn that a number of similar safes has been burgled throughout Great Britain. Will the intrepid detectives be able to find the culprits?

Solid Acting and Attention to Details

One of the things I enjoyed about this crime drama is that its narrative unfolds with a sense of authenticity, and draws you into the world of police procedures of the day with meticulous attention to detail. Although there is some breezy humor on display, mainly back-and-forth between Halliday and his new partner, the overall tone remains serious, befitting the genre.

The acting is also top-drawer, as it is so often in British cinema. Hawkins brings his signature strength and sensibility to the character of the lead investigating officer, Tom Halliday. His portrayal adds depth and gravitas to the narrative, anchoring the film in a sense of realism. Dorothy Alison is good as his wife Mary, who worries about her husband just enough, without being annoyingly cloying or overly self centered.

Geoffrey Keen, Sydney Tafler, Ian Bannen, and Ralph Truman also deliver solid performances in their respective roles, although Bannen receives only a bit of screen time (I won’t spoil why that is). These dependable players add context to the proceedings (no pun intended) while showcasing their individual talents.

Some viewers may be put off by the film’s lack of violence. You won’t see cops beating the tar out of suspects or any blood-soaked shootouts. Instead, it’s an exploration of middle-class police investigating mostly nonviolent crimes, rather than blue-collar cops chasing murderers and rapists.

Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins, L) and his loyal wife Mary (Dorothy Alison), in “The Third Key.” (Ealing Studios)
Tom Halliday (Jack Hawkins, L) and his loyal wife Mary (Dorothy Alison), in “The Third Key.” (Ealing Studios)

“The Third Key ” stands as a testament to the enduring appeal of police procedural dramas. With its realistic portrayal of crime solving, strong performances, and authentic storytelling, this film remains a classic of the genre.

Whether you’re a fan of classic cinema or simply enjoy a good detective story, this whodunit is sure to satisfy your appetites for intrigue and suspense.

“The Third Key,” is available on the Internet Archive.
‘The Third Key’ Director: Charles Frend Starring: Jack Hawkins, John Stratton, Dorothy Alison Not Rated Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes Release Date: June 2, 1957 Rated: 3.5 stars out of 5
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Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.
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