April 14, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic — an event that, to the surprise of some amongst our younger generations, actually happened in real life and stuff — and while James Cameron’s film version of the legendary disagreement between boat and iceberg has been re-released in theaters, the Criterion Collection has thrown their hat into the ring with a spiffy, newly-restored edition of Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film A Night To Remember which, of the four Titanicky pictures I’ve seen, remains the best. (Cameron’s film ranks second purely for technical accuracy and spectacle while Jean Negulesco’s 1953 film Titanic, with Barbara Stanwyck, ranks third and is little more than a soap opera with a sinking ship thrown in almost as an afterthought. The World War II-era German-made Nazi propaganda version of the story is a distressing aesthetic atrocity which should only be seen by those with an interest in history or a morbid curiosity.)
Featuring a large cast of fine British actors led by Kenneth More as Second Officer Charles Lightoller, this picture has impeccable production values, excellent black-and-white cinematography by Oscar-winning cameraman Geoffrey Unsworth (Tess, Superman) and some really fine special effects and model work for its time. What also makes this the superior telling of the Titanic’s tale is the way it earns its emotional responses without resorting to melodrama or cheap heartstring-tugging tricks; Baker directs with a no-frills attitude, letting characters’ actions speak for themselves, and these actions — sometimes stoic, sometimes heroic, sometimes noble and chivalrous, sometimes craven and cowardly — require no manipulation to evoke anxiety, anger and even tears from audiences.
Once an early DVD release from Criterion back in the ’90s, this new edition boasts an impressive new restoration that is absolutely beautiful to behold. I once had the great good fortune to see A Night To Remember on the big screen, and I am pleased to report that the Criterion Blu-ray preserves the physical feel of a celluloid presentation. Only a couple of shots, set against the inky blackness of night, reveal spots and scratches that were seemingly irreparable. The monaural sound is clear and rich throughout — those of you with good speakers listen to those creaks as the ship tilts ever more precariously and see if they don’t give you the creeps. The disc contains several extra features, and while they are all fairly informative I must say I was a bit disappointed by their vintage: most of them date back to the 1990s, and earlier. With the wealth of more recent information we have about the Titanic’s sinking it would have been nice to have something a little more updated, but what they may lack in freshness they certainly make up in volume. First and best is a commentary track from 1994 featuring Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, who collaborated on a book about the Titanic and come loaded for bear with a wealth of information about details large and small. (Lest you think the soused baker who lurches about through the picture — and miraculously survives the entire ordeal — was a cartoony and questionable joke on the part of the filmmakers, rest assured Drinky The Baker was a very real person who walked away from the most famous maritime disaster in history at least in part by getting stinko.) Short of reading the Walter Lord book on which the film is based — and it’s a shame that a copy wasn’t included a la previous Criterion editions of The Furies or Short Cuts — this commentary fills in a lot of details for which the film simply hasn’t time.
Next up is The Making Of A Night To Remember, a one-hour documentary from 1993 which is also fairly informative, but it’s nearly two decades old — surely someone with a fresh perspective is hanging about somewhere. A 20-minute interview with Titanic survivor Eva Hart, dating back to 1990, cannot help but attain the great degree of poignancy that only an eyewitness account could provide. Going even farther back — to 1962, the 50th anniversary — is En Natt Att Minnas, a 30-minute documentary from Sweden that also contains interviews with survivors, as well as a reading of a Swedish poem and a folk song about the disaster. I don’t know what to say about that. Poets and folkies gotta earn a living too.
Perhaps the most oddball of the extras is the 2006 BBC documentary The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic (sure, blame the icebergs, they can’t protest), which traces the origin and path of the iceberg as well as the building and voyage of the Titanic. This kind of felt like the montage of Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed training for their rematch — it’s as though the filmmakers were setting up a kind of heavyweight bout that couldn’t really exist, as both parties concerned were inanimate objects and thus ineligible under the rules of most sensible boxing commissions. Having never been a big nature doc fan (and more concerned about icebergs MELTING than forming nowadays), I confess this was a bit of a slog for me; I found myself constantly saying out loud in disbelief, “I’m watching a documentary about an ICEBERG.” Those more attuned to the splendors of nature will no doubt find this of greater interest. Finally, there is a trailer and a booklet with a very good essay by Michael Sragow that includes photographs and ephemera related to the Titanic. The disc’s cover art, by the way, is an evocative painting in shades of grey by Greg Manchess that, if properly enlarged, would be suitable for framing.
As I mentioned earlier, some more recent material would be great — actors Honor Blackman (Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore), David McCallum (The Great Escape, NCIS) and Alec McCowen (Frenzy, The Age Of Innocence) are still alive, and their recollections alone would have done nicely — but A Night To Remember could have been a bare-bones affair and I would still wholeheartedly recommend it, both for the wonderful qualities of the film itself and for the spectacular new transfer.
It is a pleasure to see one of the first ten spine numbers of the Criterion Collection upgraded so splendidly.