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James Cameron's Titanic (1997) may be the highest grossing picture in movie history, but many critics feel that Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember (1958) is still the most precisely constructed cinematic take on the Titanic tragedy. Cameron, of course, had modern digital effects at his disposal, so don't expect Baker to wow you in that department. But Baker's film is the one to turn to for the real lowdown on exactly what happened to the doomed luxury liner on that fateful night. Baker avoids fictional characters altogether, choosing instead to follow the trajectories of a broad range of real-life passengers. He juggles an enormous amount of information, but presents it with absolute clarity. It's a remarkable piece of big-screen storytelling, and you don't even have to put up with Celine Dion warbling over the end credits.
The story unfolds, for the most part, through the eyes of Second Officer Lightoller (Kenneth More). The pop culture monolith that is Cameron's film has seen to it that every man, woman, and child on earth knows the general layout of the ship and the social standing of its various passengers; the rich folks housed above, the poor folks down below. Baker makes it clear, though, that the number of messages being sent to and from America by the wealthier passengers was partially responsible for the tragedy, since the wireless operator was too overwhelmed to keep relaying weather reports to the bridge!
Several performers have memorable moments as the films unfolds, although the sheer number of characters means that you never get particularly caught up in any one person's ordeal. Take note, however, of the sailor in the crow's nest who shouts out that an iceberg is approaching. It's character actor Bernard Fox (probably best-known as Dr. Bombay on the TV series, Bewitched), who would later have a larger role in Cameron's film.
Producer William MacQuitty had always been interested in the Titanic, and with good reason; he saw the ship being launched on its one and only voyage, when he was six years old. He was, as you might expect, greatly impressed by the sight of the massive vessel, and was horrified to learn of its fate. By 1956, William had become a successful film producer. When Walter Lord's meticulously-researched book about the disaster, A Night to Remember, hit the bestseller charts, MacQuitty decided to option it.Then the process of putting such a gargantuan story on the screen began.
MacQuitty, Baker, and screenwriter Eric Ambler certainly had their work cut out for them, and they passed with flying colors. The final script contained over 200 speaking parts, a number that would make even Robert Altman flinch. The budget was also remarkably small for such an epic narrative - a mere $1,680,000, which probably wouldn't have covered the bagel tab on Cameron's film. Nevertheless, A Night to Remember's production design is outstanding. One could quibble with some shots of the obviously miniature ship, but that's a minor concern given the cohesiveness of the rest of the picture.
People tend to forget that a lot of passengers survived the sinking of the Titanic, and many of them were still alive when A Night to Remember was written. Lord located 64 survivors while researching his book, and several others were found during filming. He even developed friendships with some of them. One woman, Edith Russell, is depicted in the movie as clutching her lucky stuffed pig while she abandons ship. The real Russell loaned Lord that same stuffed pig for use in the film and later bequeathed it to Lord in her will.
Although A Night to Remember didn't receive any Oscar® nominations, it was unanimously praised by the critics. Pauline Kael wrote that it had "an undeniable power" and noted that it was "far more exciting than the usual screenwriter's contrivances...There are no big-star roles, but the movie is full of small dramas." The film also won the 1959 Golden Globes award for Best English-Language Foreign Film" and was nominated for a Golden Laurel award for Best Cinematography (by Geoffrey Unsworth).
Besides this version and Cameron's 1997 account, the Titanic was also the focus of 20th-Century-Fox's popular 1953 film Titanic starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb as well as a German version in 1951. The tragedy also figured prominently in the Debbie Reynolds musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). A real character, Brown was one of the famous survivors. In A Night to Remember she's played by Tucker McGuire. The cast also includes such famous faces as David McCallum prior to his fame as a secret agent on the TV series, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as the wireless operator Harold Bride, Laurence Naismith as Captain Smith and Honor Blackman (she played Pussy Galore in the 1964 James Bond film, Goldfinger) as Mrs. Liz Lucas.
Director: Roy Ward Baker
Producer: William MacQuitty
Screenplay: Eric Ambler (based on the book by Walter Lord)
Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth
Editing: Sidney Hayers
Music: William Alwyn
Musical Director: Muir Mathieson
Art Director: Alexander Vetchinsky
Costume Design: Yvonne Caffin
Makeup: W.T. Partleton
Special Effects: Bill Warrington
Cast: Kenneth More (Herbert Lightoller), Honor Blackman (Mrs.Lucas), Anthony Bushell (Capt. Rostron), Ronald Allen (Clarke), Robert Ayres (Peuchen), Jane Downs (Mrs. Lightoller), Jill Dixon (Mrs. Clarke), James Dyrenforth (Col. Gracie), Kenneth Griffith (Phillips), Michael Goodliffe (Thomas Andrews), Harriette Johns (Lady Richard), Frank Lawton (Chairman), Richard Leech (William Murdoch), David McCallum (Bride).B&W-119m.
by Paul Tatara