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The Criterion Completist – A Night to Remember (1958)

April 23, 2012


written by: Eric Ambler

produced by: William MacQuitty

directed by: Roy Ward Baker

rating: unrated

runtime: 123 min. 

U. S. release date: December 16, 1958

DVD/Blu-ray release date: March 27, 2012


It took just 2 hours and 40 minutes for the Titanic to sink after it struck an iceberg on April 14th, 1912, killing over 1500 of its 2200 passengers.  That the chronology of the sinking fits a traditional cinematic narrative timeline is perhaps one of the reasons why this tragedy has been filmed so many times, most recently (and maybe finally) by James Cameron in his epic 1997 film “Titanic”, but none better than the 1958 British production “A Night to Remember”.

The filmmakers here have decided to center their story around the character of Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More), a combination of a number of actual historical figures.  Through his eyes we are able to witness the moment by moment events of the Titanic’s sinking, from the initial impact, to the slow realization of the extent of the damage to the final chaotic minutes of evacuation.





A number of elements set “A Night to Remember” apart from other retellings of this tragedy, beginning with the attention to detail.  Based off of Walter Lord’s exhaustively researched book of the same name, nothing was overlooked, from the costumes, to the silverware in the first class dining room, to the rigging of the ropes on the lifeboat mechanisms.  Even more so than Cameron’s film, you get the feeling that this was what it must have actually been like to be on the Titanic.  The performances are all masterfully done by a stable of relatively unknown actors, with a typical British, understated style. This restrained acting manner helps underscore the massive tragedy unfolding around them, and everyone from the officers to the millionaires in first class attempt to face the crisis with a calm, stiff upper lip, at least in the early hours.  Of course, the film also addresses some of the famous legends and heroes (and villains) of the sinking, including Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire), and the band that kept playing on the deck as the chaos and panic swirled around them.

Director Roy Baker has done an excellent job of filtering the entire film through a lens of class consciousness, and we see how the same events are handled by first class, second class and steerage passengers.  He does not shy away from the horrible facts of the tragedy, like half-filled lifeboats being lowered away, poorer passengers being denied chances to escape, and cowardly men disguising themselves as women to get on the boats.  He even implies that the ice warnings from other ships were being ignored in the telegraph office, so that richer passengers could send out personal messages back home to their families.  Unlike other versions, Baker also gives us the full mini-saga of the RMS Carpathia, the only other ship to heed the Titanic’s distress calls and make an effort to get there in time.





Overall, this is just simply the best Titanic movie ever made, and manages to be incredibly moving and respectful of the tragedy, without devolving into overwrought melodrama.  The only problem is that no one seems to know this movie even exists, I suppose because it’s a British film and there are no famous or recognizable stars (look close enough though and you’ll find some former Bond actors on deck, like Honor Blackman from “Goldfinger” and uncredited appearances by Sean Connery and Desmond Llewelyn, as well as David McCallum from the “The Man from U. N.C.L.E.”). Hopefully this new Criterion edition will change that and expose this gem to a wider audience.

As befitting the 100th anniversary of the disaster, Criterion has loaded up this disc with a bevy of unbelievable bonus features.  Most interesting is the hour or so of behind-the-scenes footage shot by producer William MacQuitty, a rare and fascinating treat for a movie this old.  Here we get to see how they rebuilt a former steamer ship into a replica for the Titanic, as well as a glimpse into the special effects department, and how they used models to get the more difficult shots of lifeboats in the ocean.  There is also a BBC documentary about the sinking and a Swedish documentary that interviews survivors of the sinking.






RATING: ***1/2




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