On April 15, 1912 when the Titanic slipped beneath the icy Atlantic she took 1502 souls to their watery grave; a cataclysm whose callous enormity sparked a review and revision of Maritime Laws and arguably gave birth to the most celebrated, and undeniably, most enduring legacy of any luxury liner. Her story instantly became the stuff of legend and myth and in the intervening decades it has only grown to encompass more fanciful re-telling of that fateful night and maiden voyage. Titanic is a perennial; a story as compelling as it is undeniable tragic. It has given rise to many adaptations on screen, stage and television, but none more definitive than Roy Ward Baker’s A Night To Remember (1958). Instead of eschewing a responsibility in giving credit to those fatefully stricken with their bitter end on the night in question, Eric Ambler's screenplay (from the meticulously researched book by Walter Lord) focuses on the real people aboard this ill-fated luxury liner.
If what followed – in terms of plot - is as fictional as most other filmic accounts, then at least the essence of the piece, the very heart and spirit of Lord’s novel, is affectionately in the right place. Better still Walter Lord had spent years interviewing Titanic survivors, documenting their recollections with painstaking detail. That Baker’s movie has such overwhelming authenticity behind it from the start is therefore hardly surprising. In absence of Hollywood star power, Kenneth More (a sizable British talent, well regarded) is top cast as Second Officer Charles Lightoller. It is mostly through Lightoller’s interactions that we are permitted glimpses into the lives of Col. Archibald Gracie (James Dyrenforth), Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), Benjamin Guggenheim (Harold Goldblatt), Isador Straus (Meier Tzelniker) and Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire) among others; all legitimate passengers on the RMS Titanic.
We tread the familiar tale with a refreshing perspective that, quite simply, has not dated with the passage of time. Lighttoller takes his place among the crew, waxing affectionately about his good fortune to be aboard the grandest ship ever designed by man. The Titanic's designer, Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) as well as White Star chairman, J. Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton) wholeheartedly agree. The Titanic is the world's unsinkable liner. In fact, Ismay encourages Capt. Edward John Smith (Lawrence Naismith) to utilize the Titanic's expansive boilers to maximum capacity in an attempt to break the transatlantic crossing record on their maiden voyage. As fate would have it, their journey is destined to enter the annals of history on a more notorious footnote.
As the passengers retire to their cabins for the evening a large chunk of ice looms large on the horizon. Unable to avoid a collision, the bow is torn apart, mortally wounding the grand ship and dooming its passengers to a watery grave. The extent of the impact is, at first, not immediately apparent and many regard the incident as little more than a minor impediment to their arriving in New York harbor on time. Soon, however, their fate takes on a more concrete form. The forward compartments fill with sea water dragging the ship down by its bow. Anxiety grips the decks as many frantically struggle to get into the lifeboats capable of saving less than half of all those aboard. Capt. Smith resigns himself to the inevitable while Lighttoller and his gallant men risk everything to save as many as they can from going down with the ship.
In Britain, A Night To Remember generated considerable audience interest and box office revenues. Regrettably, not much of either was forthcoming in the U.S. where the story had already been played out in Jean Negulesco’s 1953 glossy, if slightly idiotic disaster epic, Titanic. It must be said that Negulesco’s soap opera cannot hold a candle to this movie. In hindsight, what is particularly remarkable about A Night to Remember is how well the staging and SFX hold up under today's closer scrutiny. Yes, the boat is obviously a miniature, but photographed with such attention to detail that one can easily suspend disbelief for the few brief moments the vessel is shown in long shot. The sinking is handled with eerie reverence and a meticulous attention to detail. In fact, when James Cameron was preparing his 1997 version of this climactic moment he all but excised whole portions of Geoffrey Unsworth’s spectacular cinematography, using the exact same angles and lens to strikingly plagiarist effect.
Unlike Hollywood versions of the story, that tend to afford the fateful moment a crescendo in denoted panic-driven music cues (most survivors have attested that the actual striking of the berg was largely unnoticed at first by passengers), A Night To Remember quietly acknowledges the moment this sea-faring leviathan struck its cold emasculator, but without much in the way of foreshadowing or fanfare. Hence, A Night To Remember plays ominously like newsreel footage rather than a re-enactment in dumb show. We feel the terror creeping into our hearts as palpable and chilling as icy Atlantic seeping into the mail and cargo holds. The result; a thoroughly haunting, absorbing cinema 'document' - not a heartrending exercise in melodramatic pathos that threatens to drag history down twice, then once more for the count with its lugubrious fiction.
Criterion's 2k restored Blu-ray rectifies the great sin of their lackluster DVD from some years back. This 1080p transfer - enhanced at 1:67.1 for widescreen TVs - delivers the goods with a beautifully balanced gray scale, very clean whites and deep solid blacks. Fine detail is nicely realized throughout and film grain has been accurately reproduced. The original DVD had a very flawed, digitized look to it. The Blu-ray is more fluid, more film-like in every respect. If you've only experienced this film from Criterion's DVD, then the Blu-ray is sure to be a revelation. Quite simply, the image is breathtakingly sharp. The audio is mono and very nicely cleaned up and presented at an adequate listening level.
In addition to Ken Marschall and Don Lynch's exemplary audio commentary and the exceptional ‘making of’ documentary produced by the BBC (featuring Walter Lord and accounts from Titanic survivors - both extras previously made available on Criterion's DVD) we also get an archival interview with survivor Eva Hart, the 1962 Swedish documentary with more survivors telling their stories, and the feature length 2006 documentary, The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic. Bottom line: despite James Cameron's best efforts, A Night To Remember remains the definitive Titanic disaster movie. The Criterion upgrade is a no brainer. You must own this disc! Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)