While most people may think that seeing the tragic story of The Titanic on the big screen began and ended with the help of the almighty James Cameron, that couldn’t be further from the case. Barbara Stanwyck got the chance to take a trip on the doom vessel, and even the Nazi party turned their attempt at telling the tale into a propaganda piece. However, none can compare to the 1958 masterpiece from Roy Ward Baker, A Night To Remember.
One of the earliest releases from Criterion on DVD, spine number seven just got a revamped Blu-ray edition, all in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the still legendary accident. Based on a book penned by Walter Lord and a script from Eric Ambler, the film follows a cavalcade of fictional narratives, with even time spent amongst various passengers. Be it the ship’s captain or the band that plays each night in the lounge/lobby, the film never sits too long with any one story, and almost to the film’s fault, as there is not a single more emotionally distressing adaptation of this story ever to have been filmed to date.
Just five years after Stanwyck starred in an adaptation of the story, and using some elements from the aforementioned propaganda film, the one thing that Night does better than any of these other Titanic features, is give us just the right emotional scope. We do follow a handful of characters during the film’s two hour runtime, but each character is given the perfect amount of time to breathe and ultimately make their most storied demise all the more moving.
Starring the likes of Kenneth More, Ronald Allen, Robert Ayres, Honor Blackman, Anthony Bushell and John Cairney, given the right time to put true life into these characters, each of them turns in a fantastic performance. The film holds within it a brooding sense of dread, given the one hundred years we’ve had since the events, and the film’s subdued performances really add a lot to the film. More is the closest thing the film has to a lead, and gives a perfectly toned performance as Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller. No gunfights to be found here, the film instead opts for a distinct sense of realism, and particularly in the brilliant performances that fills the film’s two hours.
However, it’s Baker that’s the true star here. Aesthetically, the film is absolutely breathtaking. Distinctly realistic, the film has a near documentary filmmaking style, in what is not only the most visually striking Titanic film to date, but also history’s most visually subtle. Best encompassed by the slight rolling of a buffet tray in a dining hall, signifying the starting of the ship’s voyage to the bottom of the ocean, Baker takes a story that could very well be used for a huge visual spectacle, but instead steeps the viewer in a startling sense of realism. With a perfect directorial hand at blending these distinct narratives the film is absolutely awe inspiring.
Screenwriter Eric Ambler is also deserving of much of the film’s credit. With an equally strong hand with the film’s characters, the strongest aspect of the film is just how subtle its thematic issues are built. Yes, the film is structurally a look into the men and women aboard the ship with a doomed fate, the film is far more a distinct look into the social politics that plagued that day. Take this for example. A couple, wealthy, young and beautiful, the man in the relationship sees a group of lower class citizens having a rambunctious blast playing soccer on the deck of the ship. Looking towards his wife, he posits that the two should go join the fun, only to be asked why he’d like to join those people. Tonally on the nose from a script perspective, and visually breathtaking, with perfect framing, composition and black and white cinematography, the film is easily the greatest film to date about this event.
And with its early spot in the Criterion canon, the recently released Blu-ray is the stuff of legends.
With a brilliant audio and visual transfer (as should be expected), the film’s supplemental peak is its commentary. Featuring the author and illustrator of Titanic: An Illustrated History (Don Lynch and Ken Marschall respectively), the commentary is not the most ‘entertaining’ of commentaries, but it is beyond engaging and quite intriguing intellectually. An hour-long making of gives the viewer a great look into the film’s production, and an hour-long BBC documentary gives him or her a great look into the historic aspect of what truly happened that fateful night. Toss in some interviews with actual Titanic survivors, and you have a release that is easily the best release to come this centennial anniversary of the ship’s demise. Sure, the film may be a tad more pensive than one would expect, given the truly dramatic takes on this story, but it’s for the better. A film more about the people on the ship and the era they lived in, A Night To Remember more than righteously deserves the early spine number that adorns the side of the case.