PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (Also Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.K.: Roy Ward Baker, 1958 (Criterion Collection)
The most expensive British film production of the ‘50s, this exciting and meticulous recreation of the 1912 sinking of the U.S.S. Titanic — far more accurate in almost every way than the 1997 all-time blockbuster romance by James Bameron — takes us step by step, through the miscues and events that led to one of the great naval catastrophes of the twentieth century.
We see it all, or mostly all: the mix of genius and hubris that led to the construction of this “floating city” (the biggest cruising ocean liner ever built) by its designer Thomas Andrews; the vast gallery of passengers — from the nabobs and financial titans above in the first class cabins and the floating ballroom (a glittering roster that included John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and the popular mystery writer Jacques Futrelle), to the poorer passengers jammed into steerage below; the deadly iceberg that ripped a hole in the ship’s hull (at exactly the wrong spot) and sent it sinking down, in icy waters, in the night; the crew who valiantly tried to save her and the officers, including the captain, Edward John White (Laurence Naismith) and his vigorous second officer, Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More), who tried to rescue in the lifeboats as many passengers as they could (though the poor people in steerage were left to pound on locked doors, until the last boats had left); the desperate failed attempts by another ship The Carpathian, sturdily led by Captain Arthur Rostron (Anthony Bushell), to get to the Titanic in time; the almost inexplicable failure of the nearby ship The Californian, which could have reached The Titanic and its passengers, but kept ignoring the calls for help all night long; and, finally, one prime reason for the loss of life, the fatal error of the ship not carrying enough lifeboats for the entire passenger list, meaning, since the Titanic observed the ancient law of “Women and children first,” that families had to be separated, deaths became inevitable, tragedies multiplied — right up to the last sweetly melancholy strains of the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” played to the end by the ship’s gallant orchestra, and the last sight (from the boats full of women and children), of the Titanic, its decks now dark, tipping up and plunging with the men left aboard to its watery grave. (About 750 lives were saved; about 1,500 were lost.) As we watch, we feel again and again that we are probably seeing what happened, how it happened, and, as well as can be determined, why it happened.
It‘s a masterly historical reconstruction — and despite its typically British, somewhat staid cinematics, an absolutely thrilling film. As gripping and excitingly visual as Cameron‘s movie may have been, this picture, even more, is the movie Titanic to remember.
The main historical source for the movie was Walter Lord’s superbly researched and written best-selling 1955 book on the Titanic (also called “A Night to Remember“) — which was published two years after the release of the plush, entertaining but corny 1953 picture Titanic by director Jean Negulesco and writer-producer Charles Brackett. The director of the film A Night to Remember was the solid British craftsman and action-suspense specialist Roy Ward Baker (of Don’t Bother to Knock and the Quatermass science fiction films) , and the dedicated producer was William MacQuitty, who wanted it big and wanted it right.
But it’s the screenplay, by the great British spy novelist Eric Ambler (the author of A Coffin for Dimitrios, Journey into Fear and Background to Danger) that makes this movie so special: a landmark picture that should be remembered by all of us much more than it is.
Ambler seems to get it, mostly, right. (There‘s some fictionalization, naturally, and some speculation in scenes where witnesses were absent or dubious.) And he also creates, or recreates, dozens of memorable characters, from The Titanic’s eventually resigned Captain Edward John Smith ( played by Laurence Naismith), to two bright, young and increasingly disturbed radio operators (played by the bright young actors David McCallum and Alec McCowen), to the families being divided and the older gentlemen playing their last game of cards in the ballroom, to the bumptiously unsinkable Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire), taking command in her lifeboat.
Ambler constructs it beautifully, brilliantly juxtaposing the tragic (the stoic husbands and fathers saying their goodbyes) and the comic (a tipsy baker played by George Rose who drinks his way through the ship as the waters rise), the rich and the poor, the personal and the communal, the brave and the craven. A Night to Remember does what those two other Titanics really couldn’t, maybe didn’t want to: It convinces us that, tense and dramatic as the story becomes, it’s no romantic fantasy at all. This might have happened, could have happened. Much of it probably did happen.
The central figure of the drama, the man whose viewpoint we mostly follow, is Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, the man chiefly responsible for getting the passengers into the boats. Played by Kenneth More, one of the big British male movie stars of the ’50s (along with Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier and Dirk Bogarde), the character becomes a kind of quintessential British middle class hero, a professional with style, a gentleman with moxie.
More played comedy roles as well as drama, and some of the skills honed in British comedy help his timing, sharpen his expertise at reacting, and his sense of the darkly absurd — as Lightoller tries to respond to the increasingly frantic passendgers, to be a fair judge and organizer in the multitude of crises, and to navigate his way through a nightmare that keeps getting worse as the ship relentlessly sinks. The real Lightoller may have been different, but this is the second officer we want aboard The Titanic that night. And this is the one that Ambler, always a master at showing what happens to ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations, gives us.
Ambler won an Oscar for his script for the 1953 WW2 naval drama The Cruel Sea. But he was never better than he was here; few other screenwriters have been either. Would A Night to Remember have been better itself with a more obviously brilliant director, with a David Lean or a Carol Reed (both of whom had worked with Ambler on lesser films), or even with a Hitchcock?
I’m not sure. In Baker, Ambler and MacQuitty didn’t have a stylist. But they had a good director, a good organizer (like Lightoller), a helmsman who could keep his stories lucid, his connections supple, his characters alive, his drama and his comedy on target. That’s what it took to get the people into the boats. A Night to Remember is Eric Ambler‘s masterpiece, as well as Baker’s: a film to remember, a tour-de-force of historical recreation. We watch it and we think: Yes, this is what it may well have been like to be there then, to be on that doomed ship, on the Titanic, on that dark night the iceberg struck it, as the people swirled on the decks, and the boats lowered into the ocean, on that night to remember — if only we were among the lucky few, including Second Officer Lightoller, who survived to see the day.
Extras: New digital restoration; Commentary by “Titanic” historians Don Lynch and Ken Marshall; 1993 documentary The Making of “A Night to Remember”; Interview with Titanic survivor Eva Hart; The Swedish documentary En Natt att Minas, with more interviews with Titanic survivors; The 2006 BBC documentary The Iceberg that Sank the “Titanic”; Trailer; Booklet with archival photographs and Michael Sragow essay.