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Blu-ray Review: A Night to Remember (1958) – The Criterion Collection

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1958’s A Night to Remember was in no way the first film about the RMS Titanic sinking nor was it the last.  The tale of the ill-fated ship sinking on April 14, 1912 is one oft-told on both the big screen and the small.  It would be, it features everything one needs for a great story from action and adventure to spectacle to glitz and glamour, rich and poor.  All one really has to do is throw a little bit of a love story in to it as well (and surely there were people on the boat in love!) and you have it all.  Beyond that, the story of the Titanic is one of man’s attempt to conquer nature, man’s hubris, and tales of hubris work, dramatically speaking.

As for this particular version of the epic story, A Night to Remember is directed by Roy Ward Baker and based on the book by Walter Lord.  While it unquestionably has characters which are seen repeatedly, the two hour and three minute film is more interested in establishing the vessel’s first voyage, what life was supposed to be like on the ship, and then what happened when the Titanic struck the iceberg.

Being made in 1958, the film cannot rely on the technological wizardry so evident in the James Cameron’s 1997 film.  Even so, it still does an excellent job with the effects it does manage, including the sinking of the.

It is, as one would think is the case for many a Titanic-based film, after the ship hits the iceberg that A Night to Remember finds its way.  All that comes before that moment is necessary background for that which comes after, but isn’t really terribly compelling.  As with all Titanic movies, we have to hear how unsinkable the ship is, how the captain heard about icebergs in the water, how mean the first class guests and crew are to those in steerage, etc., etc., but it’s all just setup for what the movie is really about – the disaster.

When it does come to the sinking, the film really takes off.  The film excels in its depiction of what took place with the crew and passengers once the boat started sinking and after it was submerged.  Particularly memorable is a seen in which people on top of a capsized lifeboat attempt to stop others from joining them.

Despite it really not being character-driven, Kenneth More is at the front of the ensemble cast as Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightroller).  It is via Lightroller, as much as anyone, that we get our look at the disaster.  Other very familiar names present are Honor Blackman and David McCallum.  The real star though, as indicated above, is the sinking of the ship and not the cast.

As discussed in the essay by Michael Sragow which accompanies this Criterion release, the film utilizes archival clips (the launch of the Queen Elizabeth standing in for the Titanic), which certainly on Blu-ray alter the flavor of the work.  These clips are, most definitely, of a different moment and look exceptionally different than the film itself.  Rather than pulling the viewer out of the proceedings however, they serve (especially if one is unaware that it isn’t the Titanic) to remind us all that the tale told, even if some of the characters are composites and not historically factual, did in fact occur in a similar, if not the exact same, fashion. 

Criterion has, as one would expect from one of their releases, done a fine job in restoring the film.  It is not perfect here on Blu-ray, there are numerous scenes where scratches run the length of the screen, but it is quite good.  Dirt and other visual noise is minimal however and the film does not have an over-scrubbed look either.  Detail levels aren’t what one would look for in a new release, but to expect that would be foolish.  Despite many scenes playing out at night, one never feels as though the visuals are muddled – boats, characters, and everything else is clearly visible.  Criterion has remastered the original monaural soundtrack but left it monaural.  It sounds excellent.  There really is no notable hiss or crackling on the track.  It isn’t crystal clear, but it is amazingly good.

Outside of the aforementioned essay, Criterion has included several other bonus features as well.  These include a commentary by Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, author and illustrator of an illustrated history of the ship; a full-length making-of piece from the early ’90s; an interview with a survivor, Eva Hart; and a Swedish documentary on the ship which is based off of this film and its source material.  My personal favorite bonus feature, however, is a BBC documentary on the iceberg that sank the Titanic.  It delves into the history of the iceberg including how it got to be where it was on the night of April 14.  It is a fascinating look at icebergs in general and distinctly odd that it is done through the lens of this tragedy, but the new perspective is a welcome one.

For my money, I would rather watch A Night to Remember than James Cameron’s film.  I won’t attempt to argue that one is better than the other, but by fixating on a love story which doesn’t speak to me in any way, Cameron’s Titanic misses the mark.  Here what one gets may be slightly less accurate and realistic in terms of the sinking (even if it was made with the best available data at the time) but is more fully compelling.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.