Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: A Night to Remember: Criterion (1958)
Studio Line: Criterion/Home Vision

On April 14, 1912, just before midnight, the unsinkable TITANIC struck an iceberg. In less than three hours, it had plunged to the bottom of the sea, taking with it 1,500 of its 2,200 passengers. A Night To Remember depicts the ship's final hours in an unforgettable rendering of Walter Lord's book of the same name.

Director: Roy Ward Baker
Cast: Kenneth More, Ronald Allen, Robert Ayres, Honor Blackman, Anthony Bushell, John Cairney
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; single sided - dual layered; 52 chapters; Not Rated; 123 min.; $37.95; street date 5/14/98.
Supplements: Audio Commentary with author Don Lynch and illustrator Ken Marschall; “The Making of A Night to Remember” documentary hosted by Ray Johnson; Original American theatrical trailer.
Purchase: DVD | Book - Walter Lord

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C+/B

We live in an “either-or” world that seems to leave little room for compromise. Coke or Pepsi? New York or LA? Some folks feel that it you enjoy one, you can’t care for the other.

This applies to many movies, where you don’t seem “allowed” to like both of them. Ever since James Cameron’s hugely-successful Titanic appeared in 1997, a small crowd has crowed that film was no good and that 1958’s A Night to Remember was the vastly superior offering. It can be tough to find someone who doesn’t act as though you have to enjoy one or the other, which I don’t understand. It’s as though one’s preference makes any positive thoughts about the other completely invalid. Can’t we like them both?

Maybe not, but I’m going to try to do so. Although it’s become quite fashionable to disparage Titanic over the last three years, I remain on the record as someone who really liked it and who thought it was a fine film. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t also appreciate Night. Honestly, I still prefer the more recent epic, but the older flick also offered a very solid piece of work.

For rather obvious reasons, much of the material found in both films is very similar. Night also covers the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. However, it gets to the point much more quickly than did Titanic. The latter ran 194 minutes, and the boat didn’t hit the iceberg until roughly halfway through the flick; prior to that, we had a romantic story in which two kids fell in love.

At 123 minutes, A Night to Remember doesn’t have the same luxury of time, so after some quick and perfunctory introductions to the main characters, it’s straight to the sinking! Frankly, I thought this was the weakest aspect of the film. It portrayed a fairly large catalog of characters but did little to let us get to know them. Actually, if I wasn’t already cognizant of many of the participants - such as boat’s designer Thomas Andrews, White Star Boat Line chairman Bruce Ismay, and “Unsinkable” Molly Brown - I might have felt less in-tune with them here; the characters aren’t given many details, and we get a lot of them piled into a small amount of time.

For the first 30 minutes or so of the film, I had trouble connecting with it mainly due to these elements. The pacing seemed rushed, as though the producers just wanted to be done with all the exposition and show us some smashing. However, once the impact occurs, the movie really starts to come to life, and it ultimately provides a very satisfying experience.

Since I liked Titanic, the strong temptation is to directly compare the two films, and that’s easy to do. However, it’s probably not fair to either work, as each features a different emphasis. Titanic took the more personal view to the tale. Sure, we get a good look at the greater picture, but Cameron clearly felt that the impact of the disaster would be better felt through the eyes of two compelling protagonists, and I can’t disagree; as was the case with the brilliant Sophie’s Choice, sometimes huge cataclysms present a stronger punch when seen on a smaller, more human level.

Night plays more like a documentary. There really are no lead characters, though Second Lightoller (Kenneth More) comes closest to matching the criteria. Nonetheless, the movie focuses on the general events of the evening and relates a lot of information not discussed in Titanic, such as the involvement - or lack thereof - from two nearby ships, the Carpathia - which helped rescue the survivors - and the Californian - which didn’t do squat.

Those elements of Night were especially compelling to me because they hadn’t received much attention in Titanic. As such, the information was new to me. I understand that some of it may not be completely correct - our understanding of the events is clearer today than it was in 1958 - but I was interested to learn more about the subject.

Even when the two films overlap, I still really liked Night. It’s a drier, less emotional exploration of the sinking, but that doesn’t mean it lacks drama or resonance. Indeed, the disaster still seems tragic and horrific, even through a semi-objective undertaking such as this. Director Roy Baker kept the tone fairly even but the movie still offers a powerful impact.

Actually, one viewing of Night makes it clear that Cameron also had seen the film. Some scenes from Titanic seemed to come straight from the earlier movie. During my initial screening of Night, I saw at least five sequences that looked directly copied in the 1997 flick, with the most blatant being the sheepish lifeboat departure of Ismay; Cameron made the shot look almost identical to the one in Night.

The 1958 film also featured a couple of characters who may have been prototypes for Titanic’s Jack and Rose. This young newlywed pair only pop up in a few scenes, and honestly, I can’t even recall their names since they make such a brief appearance. In any case, they display some of the same attitudes seen in the stars of Titanic, and I don’t think the resemblance is a coincidence.

Speaking of coincidences, here’s a fun one. You get no points for spotting Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore in the film. Although Honor Blackman looks fairly different here than in the 1964 Bond epic, her name appears prominently in the credits, so her presence becomes more noticeable. However, make sure you keep watch for the film’s second Bond legend, as Desmond “Q” Llewellyn offers a “blink and you’ll miss him” performance as a seaman. When I observed him, I had to stop for a second and think, “Did I just see who I thought I saw?” Yup - I did!

Even without these fun appearances, A Night to Remember offers a powerful experience. The movie presents a solid recreation of the sinking of the Titanic that holds up well against the more famous 1997 telling of the tale. I still prefer Cameron’s Titanic, but there’s room enough in the sea for both movies, and Night deserves to be seen by all fans of the later flick.

The DVD:

A Night to Remember appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the picture seemed acceptable but nothing particularly special.

Sharpness largely looked nicely crisp and detailed. At no time did I discern any significant softness that marred the presentation, though some process shots appeared a little hazy. I could see occasional problems in other areas. Various kinds of clothes caused mild shimmering at times, and a few objects - particularly ropes - showed some jagged edges.

Black levels mainly appeared nicely dark and rich. Overall, the picture displayed good contrast and offered a pleasantly-gray image, though a couple of scenes came across as overly bright. Shadow detail usually seemed solid. A few shots were a little too thick, but these were exceptions, as most of the movie appeared well-rendered.

With older films, print flaws are usually the most significant concerns, and that was definitely the case for Night. Although the defects never seemed particularly intense, I nonetheless saw a slew of them throughout the movie. At various times I witnessed grain, grit, speckles, tears, blotches and streaks, and I also noted quite a few examples of thin vertical lines that ran through the picture at times. The movie showed more problems during its first third or so, and it cleaned up somewhat after that point. However, it still demonstrated quite a few defects, and those were the main reason I gave it a “C+” grade for picture.

Also fairly mediocre was the monaural soundtrack of A Night to Remember. As a whole, it seemed representative of its era but it offered nothing better than that. Dialogue appeared acceptably clear and intelligible but speech sounded fairly tinny and could be somewhat strident during louder scenes. Effects were relatively clean and accurate, and the score seemed fairly bright and tight for the most part, but the music could sound rather thin and light at times. Ultimately, the soundtrack seemed pretty average for a movie from this period.

On A Night to Remember, we find a few different supplements, starting with an audio commentary from author Don Lynch and illustrator Ken Marschall, the men behind a book called Titanic - An Illustrated History. Recorded in 1995, the two were taped simultaneously on this fairly screen-specific track. While they occasionally touch on issues related to the making of the film - such as the source of the creaking sounds heard as the ship sinks - the vast majority of the commentary discusses factual aspects of the disaster. Marschall and Lynch talk about how accurate Night was and fill in a lot of the details. As such, it’s a very interesting and informative piece that seemed like a valuable addition.

Less stimulating was the DVD’s other major extra, a 1993 documentary titled “The Making of A Night to Remember”. Hosted by Ray Johnson, this 57-minute and 50-second program features interviews with Night producer William MacQuitty and author Walter Lord and it provides a large amount of “behind the scenes” shots from the filming of the picture. Overall, I found this to be very dry program. It was mildly interesting to watch the archival footage and hear a little about the production, but I didn’t think it offered a terribly compelling discussion of the project. Perhaps I was just disappointed that host Ray Johnson wasn’t Ray Jay Johnson, the “comedian” who did the whole “you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay” but; the latter’s not funny at all, but his presence would have been so nonsensical that it would have been entertaining. (How did that loser have a career, anyway? That was the lamest routine I can conjure. Oh wait - just remembered both Gallagher and Yakov Smirnov!)

Lastly, the DVD offers the film’s original American theatrical trailer. There’s also a British trailer found toward the end of the documentary. I also expect that the DVD includes a nice essay about the movie within its booklet, but since I rented the disc, I can’t state this with absolute certainty.

What I do know is that A Night to Remember provided a very compelling look at the Titanic disaster. I feared that James Cameron’s big-budget version would spoil me for other renditions, but that wasn’t the case, as Night works well in its own right. The DVD offers adequate but unspectacular picture and sound plus a couple of good extras. If you’re interested in the Titanic saga, do yourself a favor and check out this solid movie.

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