Criterion // 1958 // 123 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 3rd, 2012
The night the unsinkable sank.
"She can't float."
The RMS Titanic is more than just a ship. It's the largest moving object in the world, a tribute to mankind's ingenuity and a modern wonder. It's been said that Titanic is unsinkable, but that theory is quickly rebuked when the ship strikes an iceberg. Due to a combination of flawed design and reckless leadership, the boat slowly begins a descent to a watery grave. There are more than 2200 people aboard, but there aren't enough lifeboats to save all of them. Who will work to save others and who will desperately attempt to save themselves during Titanic's final hours?
These days, Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember is lauded as much for what it isn't as for what it is. To be specific: it absolutely isn't James Cameron's Titanic, as it sports none of that film's untamed melodrama, blatant historical revisionism and emphasis on soapy romance. Instead, the film is a clipped, tense, documentary-style account of the ship's sinking which goes to great lengths to recreate things as they might have actually happened. There are still some minor errors -- the ship doesn't break in half, but then they weren't absolutely sure that it did until the 1980s, and certain historical figures are melded for the sake of clarity -- but it's about as accurate a big-screen portrait as we're ever likely to receive.
A Night to Remember is often regarded as a docudrama, but that term doesn't really indicate just how well it works as a thriller. Even though we know the eventual outcome of the boat -- and those who have done a little research will know the fates of most of the major characters -- there's still an enormous amount of suspense thanks to Baker's matter-of-fact handling of a large-scale tragedy. The people are panicked, to be sure, and the water comes tearing through the boat at an alarming rate, but Baker never allows his direction to become hysterical in the midst of the chaos. The film itself remains composed, thoughtful and precise from start to finish.
There are some enormously moving moments throughout, and most of them get their effect from the fact that they're so effectively muted. Consider the tender declarations of the elderly Ida Strauss (Helen Misener) and her husband Isidor (Meier Tzelniker), who refuse to take a space on the lifeboats until everyone else has been offered a seat. Or how about the scene in which ship designer Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe, Peeping Tom) gives two of the passengers some very grave news in a manner that is simultaneously tender and efficient. Time and time again, there are touching portraits of sacrifice (alongside portraits of horrifically cowardly and despicable behavior). In some ways, the film serves as a predecessor to Paul Greengrass' United 93, another documentary-style examination of individuals reacting bravely during a deadly crisis (though it doesn't quite achieve that film's searing resonance).
The central figure of the film -- to the degree that there is one -- is 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More, Dark of the Sun), who receives many of the film's more memorable lines and provides us with a philosophical summary of how things went down at the conclusion. The film's other key figure is the aforementioned Thomas Andrews, who works tirelessly to ensure that others are brought to safety and seems to be the only one fully aware of how quickly things are going to go down. In one of the film's strongest scenes, the Captain (an impressive Laurence Naismith, Diamonds Are Forever) protests that the ship can't possibly sink, but Andrews calmly assures him that the ship is doomed: "It's a mathematical certainty."
One of the film's most impressively agonizing elements is its crushing reveal of the fact that everyone onboard the Titanic could have been saved if a nearby ship had responded to their signal flares and distress calls. The Carpathia ultimately saved the surviving passengers, but it was too far away to make it before the boat sank. Alternately, the Californian was nearby, but failed to react to the cries for help. Bewilderingly, all of Titanic's flares were seen, but the Captain of the Californian decided not to do anything about them. It's that sort of detail that A Night to Remember takes the most interest in, and it stands apart from all other cinematic versions of the tale in the way it takes more interest in the technical details than in the human side. Arguing whether Baker or Cameron has provided the definitive version is a rather pointless argument, as both films spotlight very different elements of the same story and boast entirely different virtues.
It's been a while since I've taken a look at one of Criterion's standard-def offerings, but it's good to see they're still maintaining a high standard of quality in that department. While A Night to Remember undoubtedly looks stronger in hi-def, the DVD version offers a crisp, clean standard definition 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer which boasts solid detail and impressive depth. The Dolby 1.0 Mono audio track is simple and clean, getting the job done and delivering a sturdy mix of sound design and dialogue (music is minimal throughout). The supplemental package is quite generous, too. Disc one contains an audio commentary featuring Titanic experts Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, which is a detailed, informative listen. Disc two contains the hour-long "The Making of A Night to Remember" documentary, an interview with Titanic survivor Eva Hart (24 minutes), a half-hour Swedish television documentary on the sinking of the Titanic, a 49-minute British documentary on "The Iceberg That Sank Titanic," a trailer and a booklet containing a fine essay by Michael Sragow.
A Night to Remember is a superb detailing of one of the 20th Century's most prominent disasters. It's informative, yes, but also surprisingly thrilling and emotionally involving. Criterion's DVD release does the film justice.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated