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A Night to Remember

A Night to Remember(1958)

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Hard to believe though it may be, when Walter Lord's nonfiction book A Night to Remember was published in 1955, the fate of the Titanic had largely faded from the public memory. The 1953 20th Fox production Titanic starring Barbara Stanwyck concentrated on the fictional situation of a husband (Clifton Webb) trying to save his marriage. And it's important not to forget the German version overseen by Joseph Goebbels during WW2. It claimed that the calamity was caused by the arrogance of a corrupt and decadent English steamship line. In that version, the only humane member of the crew is a handsome young German. It goes without saying that the Nazi Titanic wasn't distributed in America; but Fox did lift and re-use most of its impressive miniature effects.

Producer William MacQuitty was present as a child at the launching of the real Titanic. He poured a fortune into an accurate adaptation of Lord's book, which became 1958's nail-biter A Night to Remember. The true events of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the luxury liner are more compelling than any fiction could be. Ships' officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) reports for duty on the Titanic, undertaking its first Atlantic crossing. Normal shipping has the sense to pause at nightfall, but White Star Liner Chairman J. Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton) urges Captain Edward Smith (Laurence Naismith) to break the speed record by steaming at night through icy waters. Meanwhile, the ship's proud architect Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) works on last-minute details.

The passengers are sharply divided into classes and segregated on different parts of the ship. The First Class lists includes famous millionaires while the lower decks are packed with emigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe. Young Irishman Murphy (John Cairney) is acutely aware that his 3rd-class status means more than just his ticket of passage. The ship's staff keeps the steerage passengers segregated below. Above their heads, the rich dance and dine in lavish surroundings.

Then the Titanic strikes an enormous iceberg, sustaining just enough damage to ensure that its bulkheads will fail one after another. The ship's officers do what little can be done. The liner carries lifeboats for only a fraction of its passengers; the crew has not even drilled on how to launch them. The boats are lowered in such a haphazard way that many are only partly filled. Men -- including owner Ismay -- steal seats in lifeboats meant for women and children. Worst of all, the entire steerage class is kept below decks until the lowering of the boats is all but complete. A full 1500 people are still on board when the ship begins to slip below the icy North Atlantic. The closest rescue ships are hours away.

Never has the term "tempting fate" seemed so appropriate: the formidable ship proved to be more vulnerable than anyone dreamed. Mistakes in planning and design and a cavalier attitude toward safety stemmed directly from the 'unsinkable' assumption.

A Night to Remember proves yet again that audiences will accept a story with a predetermined ending, if getting there is exciting enough. No characters are invented: the script provides a multitude of true on-board stories. A well-to-do couple (Honor Blackman & John Merivale) tucks their children in bed, not realizing that the ship has only three hours to live. Newlyweds (Jill Dixon & Ronald Allen) decide not to separate when the call comes for women to enter the boats; architect Andrews advises them on the best way to survive the sinking. A baker (George Rose) deals with certain doom by getting thoroughly drunk. Officer Lightoller must threaten to shoot panicked passengers that try to rush the last remaining lifeboats. Realizing that they have been excluded from the evacuation, young Murphy and a new acquaintance from Poland (Christina Lubicz) crash the security barrier and fight their way to the upper decks. The rigid social rules make them feel like criminals. In one lifeboat, the wife of a millionaire expresses her displeasure at the annoying screams of people in the freezing water. In another lifeboat, Denver millionaire Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire) overrides a nervous crewmember and leads her fellow passengers in rowing back to pick up more survivors.

Director Roy Ward Baker makes expressive use of the production's marvelous sets. A full-sized section of the Titanic's hull was constructed to show the lifeboats being lowered. The ship seems to be visibly dying as the tilting decks spill dishes and send children's toys sliding across elegant staterooms. Little imagination is required to become caught up in the film's feeling of entrapment. Even with the predetermined outcome, our anxiety rises as petty mistakes help insure the calamity. Ice warning messages cannot get through because the ship's wireless officers (David McCallum & Kenneth Griffith) are busy tapping out passenger messages telling friends and relatives on shore about their marvelous cruise. Other ironies are terrible in their cruelty. We're told, for instance, that if the lookouts had seen nothing and the iceberg was struck head on, the bow would have been severely damaged -- but the ship would have stayed afloat.

The film captures the totality of the disaster, communicating not only the tragedy but also other aspects of the world of 1912. Social inequities and brazen cowardice appear, but also the code of Golden Age chivalry and noblesse oblige to which many of the wealthy subscribed. Honor Blackman and John Merivale feign a cheerful farewell so as not to upset the children. Billionaire Guggenheim faces the end calmly with his valet, concerned only that his peers know that he died like a proper gentleman. Watching this tragedy can be an unnerving experience. It's far too easy to second-guess decisions made in a calamity that, from iceberg impact to sinking, wasn't much longer than the time it takes for A Night to Remember to unspool.

I must add that the first time I saw this picture the problem of survival disturbed my sleep. But by breakfast the next morning I had solved the problem. It is established in the film that another ship was "parked" for the night about ten miles away, and could see the Titanic's lights. The Titanic's captain knew the ship was there, but was unable to communicate with it. He sent up distress signal rockets, but the crew of the other vessel assumed that the rich folk were celebrating. Over breakfast I explained to my son that the captain could have started a controlled fire on one of his ship's decks -- burn some of the famous deck chairs, perhaps. Lookouts on the other ship would have no choice but to interpret such a blaze as trouble, and would come to their aid. My son agreed, but reminded me that it took me twelve hours to think of that solution. It's probable that fifty good ideas to save lives were developed -- in hindsight. A Night to Remember is a testament to mottos like "assume nothing is foolproof", and "expect the unexpected".

Criterion's DVD of a new digital restoration of A Night to Remember is The Collection's third pressing of this best film version of the infamous disaster. It is also available on Blu-ray. We're still impressed by the clean lines of Geoffrey Unsworth's camerawork. The first-unit cinematography is quite handsome (Honor Blackman is stunning, five years before Goldfinger) and the film's special effects hold up quite well.

One immediate difference in the new transfer is its restoration of a missing section of footage. Criterion's previous DVD had a Jump cut that I noted in a 1999 DVD Savant article. The film's continuity is now completely uninterrupted.

Most of the disc's excellent extras are repeated from earlier editions. Authors Don Lynch and Ken Marschall provide a full-length commentary track. Two full documentaries are included, Criterion's production that accesses producer MacQuitty's film footage from the set, and a new BBC docu from 2006 called "The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic." A shorter Swedish piece from 1962 spends time with survivors of the voyage, and a featurette interviews the noted survivor Eva Hart. An original trailer is present as well.

Criterion's thick illustrated insert pamphlet carries an informative essay by Michael Sragow.

For more information about A Night to Remember, visit The Criterion Collection. To order A Night to Remember, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson