Directed by Roy Ward Baker, a British director better remembered for his Hammer Horror films than anything else, 1958's A Night To Remember is an impressive film that tells the story of the tragic events that took place on April 14, 1912 when the Titanic struck and iceberg resulting in one of the worst nautical disasters in recorded history. Based on the book by Walter Lord and scripted by Eric Ambler, the film holds up very well even by modern standards and if it's not one hundred percent historically accurate (the ship was never christened as we see happening in an opening scene), it's close enough.
When the movie begins, we meet Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More) employed by White Star Lines and assigned to the newest luxury liner in their fleet, the R.M.S. Titanic and working under Captain Edward John Smith (Laurence Naismith) on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Of course, as we all know, it ran into trouble when it struck the iceberg and, three hours later, sunk to the ocean floor. Without enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone on board, well over half of the passengers and crew onboard perished. Through Lightoller's point of view, we witness these events, getting to know some of the passengers who survived and some who did not and as the hours quickly pass and the ship quickly becomes submerged it becomes painfully obvious that the unsinkable ship is very sinkable indeed. A distress signal is sent out as soon as it can be, picked up on by the radio operator aboard the R.M.S. Carpathia who quickly informs that ship's Captain Arthur Rostron (Anthony Bushell) who in turn orders his ship towards the disaster site in hopes of saving as many lives as possible - but we all know how that turned out.
Made with enough style to matter and featuring some amazingly honest and sincere performances, A Night To Remember can't possibly offer up the same sort of big budget Hollywood spectacle that James Cameron's blockbuster retelling of this story wowed audiences with nor does it offer up the A-list of top tier talent that the 1953 version provided. Instead, the film focuses on the human element that made the tragedy as historically significant and devastating as it was. Lightoller was the man responsible for rolling out the lifeboats and for getting as many people off of the ship as possible, but so too was he the man who had to make the horrible decisions as to who was going to get off the ship and who was not. While he's quite obviously got the best of intentions and does the best that he can under the circumstances to keep things orderly and organized, there's only so much one man can do in a situation like this. More's performance is an impressive one, as he plays with part with the right mix of nobility and legitimate fear, again emphasizing the human aspect of things. We feel for those we know will die, but so too do we feel for Lightoller who would actually make it off the ship and go on to be a fairly well decorated war hero in both World Wars.
As far as the ship itself goes, the production crew worked off of actual blueprints used to build the Titanic and were obviously going for realism here. Their efforts do not go unnoticed, and given the fact that the Titanic's Fourth Officer, Joseph Boxhall, and Cunard Commodore Harry Grattidge were on hand to approve the work as it was being carried out, we can safely assume that the film gives us a very accurate representation of what it would have been like to be on the ship itself. We quickly forget while watching the film that the entire thing was shot on a set, save for the scenes involving the lifeboats at sea which were shot in a gigantic swimming pool. There's an air of authenticity to the entire production that does wonders for it.
Ultimately the film winds up quite the triumph, dependant not on flashy computer generated effects and fancy surround sound mixes but instead on strong performances, pitch-perfect pacing, excellent production values and genuine heartfelt emotion.
The new reissue of A Night To Remember looks pretty great in this newly restored 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer taken from original elements. The black and white cinematography looks crisp and clean throughout the movie and while there's the expected amount of natural looking film grain there isn't much to complain about in the way of actual print damage. Detail is strong, contrast looks great, and black levels are solid from start to finish. There's plenty of depth and texture to the picture
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is clean, clear, well balanced and free of any hiss or distortion. The dialogue is easy to understand and the score sounds good. Obviously the range is limited by the original elements and age of the film but for an older mono track, this sounds pretty good. No alternate language options or subtitles are provided.
Criterion have carried all of the extras from the previous DVD release and thrown in a few more for good measure. First up is the commentary track featuring Don Lynch and Ken Marschall, the men behind the book Titanic: An Illustrated History. These two are obviously experts on the material and quite understandably their focus is on the historical accuracy of the film, or periodically the lack thereof. They spend a lot of time discussing the real life situations behind the events seen in the movie and also provide some welcome background information on everything that happens in the film. It's quite an interesting track, particularly for those with an interest in the history of the Titanic.
Extras on the second disc start off with a featurette entitled The Making Of A Night To Remember which interviews producer William MacQuitty and writer Walter Lord in regards to what all went in to bringing the book to life, what had to be changed and why, who was involved in the different aspects of the film and more. The quality of this piece, originally made in 1993, suffers from some whispy sound but is definitely worth sitting through for the chance to hear from these two important players in the classic film's history. Up next is an interview with Titanic survivor Ema Hart entitled, simply enough, Ema Hart: Survivor. Recorded in 1990, Ms. Hart speaks about her childhood experiences onboard the ship that would become the most famous nautical disaster in history, how she made it to the Carpathia on a lifeboat and what sort of effect it had on her having experienced all of this at such a young age. The Swedish television special, En Natt Att Minnas, was made in 1962 and is also included here. It tells the story of Agnes Sandstrom and her two children who were the only Swedes to survive the sinking of the Titanic. It's a fascinating and very personal look at what happened on the boat and it comes complete with a quirky musical number! Last but not least is The Iceberg that Sank The Titanic, a fifty minute BBC documentary made in 2006 that gives us a very strong top down look at the history of the ship and the events that sunk her with some great interviews and archival bits used throughout.
And of course, what with this being a Criterion Collection release and all, inside the keepcase is a full color booklet of liner notes, biographical information, stills and credits for the film and the disc itself.
A Night To Remember holds up incredibly well and Criterion's re-release (timed to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of the event) is a rock solid disc. The transfer is great, the audio is also impressive and the extras are both plentiful and relevant, adding plenty of historical context to the film itself. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.