Saturday Editor’s Pick: A Night to Remember (1958)

by on April 22, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Sat April 28 at 6:00 at Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theater [Program & Tix]

 
Most any movie warrants a trip out to this classic theater – the giant screen with the parting curtains, the $1 popcorn, and the live organ! Seriously, its right outside the PATH station guys. This weekend they join the Titanic anniversary bandwagon, with films depicting ship travel gone drastically awry.
 

Daniel Mendolsohn recently ruminated on our continuing fascination with the disaster, and elaborates on the film’s source text considerably, for The New Yorker.

 

Dave Kehr for The New York Times:

The most sober in tone and historically reliable of the Titanic films remains Roy Ward Baker’s British production of 1958, “A Night to Remember.” Working from a screenplay by his frequent collaborator, the suspense novelist Eric Ambler, and a best-selling book by Walter Lord, Baker solidifies the metaphor long attached to the Titanic story, turning the doomed ship into a microcosm, a representation in miniature of a society about to submerge itself into the horrors of World War I.
 
Making resourceful use of miniatures, Baker creates a sense of teeming spectacle on a relatively tiny budget. A specialist at placing vivid ensembles in constrained quarters (the boarding house in “The October Man,” the submarine in “Passage Home”), Baker sketches in dozens of supporting characters with a line or two of dialogue or a characteristic gesture: the clenched jaw and faraway eyes of the ship’s architect (Michael Goodliffe) say all there is to say about the failure of dreams.

 

 
Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

Tear-stained melodrama has an undeniable power; a straightforward account of how, in 1912, the scientifically constructed, “unsinkable” liner set out for New York on its first voyage with 2207 people on board, struck an iceberg, and sank in 2 hours and 40 minutes (just 37 minutes longer than it takes to see the movie). Eric Ambler’s screenplay, derived from the book by Walter Lord, is well-written in a solid, unsurprising way. You come out with a clear perception of what, according to fairly reliable evidence, actually happened. This, it turns out, is far more exciting than the usual screenwriter’s contrivances. Roy Baker directed this shrewd, slick job of historical reconstruction, using 200 actors with Kenneth More as the linking figure among them. There are no big-star roles, but the movie is full of small dramas.

 

Farran Nehme Smith for The Self-Styled Siren:

Less is more, Baker seems to have decided, and with few exceptions he lets the events milk emotions for him. The Siren particularly admires the simply shot scene where the boat’s designer, Thomas Andrews, scribbles some calculations and says quietly, “She should live another hour and a half. Yes. About that, I should think.” Baker went on to make a number of Hammer horror films, but never filmed a moment more full of dread than that one.

 
The sinking in A Night to Remember builds like a piece of music. Our first realization that the ship is starting to rear up for its final plunge comes in the dining room–a low shot of a dumbwaiter, as the angle of the floor gives it a small nudge, and then it begins to roll, finally crashing across the room. From then on we shift back and forth between the people on the Titanic and the ship’s physical destruction. We see bread falling out of the baker’s carts, equipment pinnning down men working below, people jumping. The dishes and pots fall out of their shelves in the kitchen, then back the camera goes to the decks where passengers fight to climb higher, as the incline gets steeper and they seem almost to be willing to claw their way through the boards to gain one more minute on the dry ship.

 

 

Tom Huddleston for Time Out (London):

We may be sinking under the weight of Titanic memorabilia in this centenary year, but Roy Ward Baker’s terrific 1958 melodrama remains by far the best screen representation of the tragedy. Kenneth More is a paragon of industrial strength stiff-upper-lippedness as Lightoller, the second officer who attempts to hold fast when the big ship starts to go down.
 
‘A Night to Remember’ may lack the glitzy digital effects of the 1997 movie (it’s hard to imagine James Cameron shooting his effects sequences in Ruislip Lido), but it’s a far more gripping and imaginative film, filled with visual detail and inventive camera trickery. Baker cuts to the chase – the iceberg strikes 30 minutes in – and maintains tension with consummate skill: not an easy task when the outcome is already known.
 
Notably, this is also a more politically astute work than either the Cameron film or Julian Fellowes’s idiotic ITV mini series, nailing with broad, confident strokes the class divide which allowed so many to die unnecessarily.

 

 

Alan Bacchus for Daily Film Dose:

The glorious version of the Titanic story. This is a must-see picture, a little-discussed epic masterpiece astonishing in its production value and moving emotional power. Baker expertly lays out all these events with procedural-like efficiency. They’re so good and effective, many of Baker’s scenes are carbon copied into Cameron’s. Like Cameron’s, the production design of the ship’s interior and exterior is impeccably recreated, and the use of a scale ship model in a studio water tank lends the same kind of invisible authenticity. Cameron directly lifts the scene when the band, dutifully playing through all the chaos of the evacuation, splits up to go their separate ways then is coaxed back together when one of the violinists stays to play on by himself.
 
What is certainly missing from Baker’s film is a love story, though not at the sacrifice of the tragic and deeply emotional individual stories of heroism and tragedy from the point of the varied crew members. The central through line in A Night to Remember is the scathing theme of class hierarchy and the stubbornness of the arrogant rich folks who believed the ship couldn’t sink. The tragically ironic story for the ages is made into a spectacle for the ages.

 

 
Kristin M. Jones for The Wall Street Journal:

Quietly devastating, “A Night to Remember” still stands as the most realistic on-screen depiction of the catastrophe. It also tells a deeply moving story, not just through its subtle direction, script and performances, but also thanks to its underlying message. As the film’s producer, William MacQuitty, said in a 1993 documentary, pointing to the vast price difference between traveling first-class or in steerage: “It was an end of an era of arrogance.”
 
The film’s lucid visuals and skillful editing succinctly convey the mistakes that led to the accident and the mounting anguish that ensued. The iceberg looming into view is shot with terrifying simplicity. In one of many superb sequences that knit together events unfolding in the vast vessel, we see water gushing into an engine room, the listing ship viewed from a distance, and a cart beginning to glide in an empty dining room. A shot in which the camera ominously approaches a rocking horse in a playroom, followed by a peaceful scene of children being tucked into bed, is later grimly echoed by the rocking horse uncannily rearing up as toys slide across the playroom. The film’s minimal use of music heightens the eeriness.
 
While telling an intricate story, the narrative acknowledges the ironies involved. “A Night to Remember” has an elegiac beauty even when it captures the drawn-out horror of panicked passengers trying to escape from steerage or get onto lifeboats, men and women plunging into the ocean and those in the lifeboats listening to screams from the water and from the sinking vessel.A forthright work of art that didn’t need megastars or flashy special effects to achieve its haunting power, it reminds us that a human being—cowardly or heroic, rich or poor—will always be more precious than any technological marvel.

 

 

Beth Hanna for Indiewire:

Though not the most well-known version of the century-defining catastrophe, Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film is a feat of monumental production design and subtly moving performances. There’s something eerie about a British production of the Titanic distaster. The stiff-upper-lip stereotype holds true for the first half of “A Night to Remember” — the film has a startling lack of score, an unsentimental approach to the personal tragedies on the doomed voyage, and succinct, restrained dialogue. Then the second half descends into desperation. The editing becomes frenzied, with cross-cutting of distress fireworks being set off, water violently surging into the ship’s lower holds, and crowds of jostling passengers so in need of an escape it seems they will charge through the screen to safety.
 
Noirish thrillers, from Orson Welles to Joseph H. Lewis, used the canted angle to great effect: off-kilter shot composition instantly communicated a doomed world. “A Night to Remember” also takes full advantage of the skewed angles, more literally, as the ship is becoming front-loaded with water. While the more dramatic scenes in the second act use a sloped soundstage to show the tipping vessel, early scenes immediately following the collision with the iceberg simply employ a slightly cock-eyed camera. As unknowing first-class passengers sit in the grand dining room, drinking and playing cards, even if they don’t see that their gilded surroundings have begun to tilt, we do.

 
While Cameron’s film openly moves from revelry to tragedy, “A Night to Remember” feels more private, like a standoffish acquaintance who comes to you sobbing, gasping in his last moments of life. It’s unsettling and riveting.

 


 
Bill Ryan for his blog The Kind of Face You Hate:

Roy Ward Baker and screenwriter Eric Ambler’s A Night To Remember, which James Cameron has doubtlessly seen a billion times, is an almost clinical, though hardly cold, step-by-step dramatization of what led to this tragedy on April 14, 1912. It focuses on the pure history of the event, centering its story on Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) and Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), the designer and builder of the Titanic. Lightoller stands in for the businesslike heroism that is expected of the crew of a sinking ship, and many of my favorite shots in A Night to Remember are of crew life on the ship after it has started going down. Some of these have the air of a store closing down for good, rather than one of impending doom, which somehow makes it all the more chilling. Baker portrays the sinking of the Titanic as almost ridiculously slow — slow enough that the passengers who don’t fully understand their predicament find it easy to remain in denial until the water is at their shoes.
 
One of the best sequences in the film mirrors these shots, as Baker portrays the eerie quiet of the Titanic before it hits the iceberg. This being a film based on one of the defining events of the 20th century, you know what’s coming, and our tension is heightened by seeing waiters cleaning up a dimmed dining room — this is a store closing for the night, as opposed to for good — and, for instance, the strange, slow zoom on a rocking horse, a shot I love perhaps beyond reason, or at least beyond easy definition. It has something to do with an object so easily set in motion shown in a moment of utter stillness.
 
A Night to Remember has a grimness about its details that Cameron never matched. At his best, Cameron was occasionally able to depict the sadness, but he never managed the horror. Baker and Ambler manage it, and without fuss. As people struggle to survive in the freezing ocean, a man (George Rose’s drunken baker) clings to the side of lifeboat until someone’s death makes room for him to scramble aboard. Another man pulled from the waters implores Lightoller to save the child he is carrying, unaware that the child is already past saving. The simple shot of Lightoller glancing at the other men on the boat to indicate that the child is gone, but to say nothing to the man, ends with Lightoller placing the corpse back into the water, and a quick fade-out, as if Baker can’t bear to linger on it. A Night to Remember is a superb historical drama whose simplicity of style, when applied to such a big event, does honor to that event in a way that spectacle never can.

 

 
Michael Sragow for The Criterion Collection:

A Night to Remember has proven unsinkable. With its Olympian yet unfailingly life-size view of the disaster that scuttled illusions of twentieth-century humanity’s mechanical infallibility, it has a power to move audiences that’s impervious to age, imitation, and changing cinematic fashion. Other films about that fateful 1912 voyage have been bigger international hits/ But no other version mingles a tragic understanding of technological hubris with inspiring episodes of nobility under pressure as honestly and profoundly as this one, written by Eric Ambler, directed by Roy Ward Baker, and produced by William MacQuitty. Over a half century after its premiere, A Night to Remember remains both a pioneer and a pinnacle of the docudrama form.
 
Central to the film’s success are the bit players and extras, whose liveliness spills out beyond the limits of the screen. So are its vibrant renderings of historical personalities, like the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews, a meticulous craftsman who maintains his stoic humanity as he witnesses the destruction of his masterpiece. The film creates an electric cross section of a society crackling with overconfidence, on a ship that operates as a complex organism. Way above, in the crow’s nest, lookouts exhale fog on a bone-chilling night as they scan the horizon for ice. In the bowels of the ship, stokers sweat to feed the fires of two huge reciprocating engines. In between, the fleeting seaborne life of each class of passenger is laid out with equal empathy. Even the characters who are not on board register with glancing impact, like the little-known exemplar of maritime valor, the skipper of the Carpathia, Captain Arthur Rostron.
 
The moviemakers track a succession of individual tragedies to unflinching conclusions and counterpoint them with melancholy lyricism and even a splash of comedy. You are never conscious of suspending disbelief, partly because the film’s creative team embraces real-life incidents that are stranger than fiction. For example, the ship’s chief baker, robustly characterized by the great comic actor George Rose, survives partly because he drinks his weight in whiskey during the ordeal.

 

 
Budd Wilkins for Slant:

To its inestimable advantage, A Night to Remember eschews the mawkish sentimentality and wrung-dry romanticism that blighted James “King of the World” Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic. The understated docudrama approach behind A Night to Remember traces back to a common bond shared by producer William McQuitty, director Roy Ward Baker, and screenwriter Eric Ambler: All three men worked on patriotic documentaries during WWII. Where Cameron’s sop opera offers Rose and Jack’s doomed love affair as its dramatic fulcrum, Ambler’s rather more cannily crafted script spreads the love around in a series of interconnected vignettes whose effect ranges from touching emotionality to grim irony. Such an act of narrative decentralization effectively turns the Titanic into the film’s central character, while at the same time allowing Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) to come forward as its chief protagonist.
 
The film proceeds to sketch in the circumstances of a representative sampling of the passenger list—from peers of the realm, destined for stately stateroom accommodations, on down to lowly steerage types—before hustling them onboard the Titanic, adumbrating the ship’s routine, and then plowing it into the iceberg, all within the first half hour. Thereafter the film settles into a slightly truncated real-time scenario as the ship floods and sinks. On the whole, calamity plays out on an eminently human scale, and the effects and models are integrated into the narrative in a manner that Cameron’s showboat instincts could never fathom.
 
A Night to Remember benefits considerably from Baker’s ability to frame sequences of both intimacy and large-scale impact with equal adroitness.

 

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