With James Cameron grabbing headlines for his deep ocean plunges and "Titanic" 3-D re-release, the doomed oceanliner is back. Venerable must-see Titanic flick "A Night to Remember" has come to the Criterion Collection in a new digital restoration, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic's sinking. 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.
Kenneth More leads a sprawling cast as Second Officer Charles Lightoller. The real-life second mate of the ship survived the sinking. He strictly enforced the "women and children first" vacating strategy and, incredibly, was saved from the vessel's undertow by a blast of hot air from a submerged ventilator, and swam to a capsized rescue dinghy. Lightoller's testimony along with countless others make up the myriad storylines in the film. The opening sequence intercuts historical footage of the ship leaving the Liverpool docks with scenes on elaborate sets, which has a strange, ghostly effect. Docudrama meets Pinewood Studios.
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.
By comparison, James Cameron's terrific VFX epic "Titanic" is windswept with emotion from beginning to end, a five-hankie showstopper bursting at the seams with romance, grandeur and Celine Dion. It's unguarded, all-stops cinema. 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.
The Criterion Collection has outdone itself with special features. Everything you could ever want to know about the film or the Titanic disaster can probably be found in the 3 (!) documentaries included: "The Making of 'A Night to Remember,'" with rare behind-the-scenes footage; the BBC's "The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic"; and Sweden's "En natt att minnas" featuring interviews with the ship's survivors.
Angelinos, take note: The TCM Classic Film Festival will present a brand-new, beautifully restored DCP of "A Night to Remember" on April 14 at 9:30 PM, the exact 100th anniversary — almost to the minute — of the sinking.