To its inestimable advantage, A Night to Remember eschews the mawkish sentimentality and wrung-dry romanticism that blighted James “King of the World” Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic. (That Cameron offered audiences these melodramatic trappings like sugar cubes to calm a skittish horse, distracting their attention while he primed the pump to blow his FX load all over their faces, is only reconfirmed by Titanic‘s imminent emergence from its constrictive 2D chrysalis into IMAX-friendly 3D wonderfulness.) The understated docudrama approach behind A Night to Remember traces back to a common bond shared by producer William McQuitty, director Roy Ward Baker, and screenwriter Eric Ambler: All three men worked on patriotic documentaries during WWII. Where Cameron’s sop opera offers Rose and Jack’s doomed love affair as its dramatic fulcrum, Ambler’s rather more cannily crafted script spreads the love around in a series of interconnected vignettes whose effect ranges from touching emotionality to grim irony. Such an act of narrative decentralization effectively turns the Titanic into the film’s central character, while at the same time allowing Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) to come forward as its chief protagonist.
A Night to Remember opens with stock footage of a ship’s christening attended by the teeming masses, despite the fact that the Titanic was never christened, as though a disaster this epochal somehow demanded a suitably highfalutin inauguration. The film proceeds to sketch in the circumstances of a representative sampling of the passenger list—from peers of the realm, destined for stately stateroom accommodations, on down to lowly steerage types—before hustling them onboard the Titanic, adumbrating the ship’s routine, and then plowing it into the iceberg, all within the first half hour. Thereafter the film settles into a slightly truncated real-time scenario as the ship floods and sinks. On the whole, calamity plays out on an eminently human scale, and the effects and models are integrated into the narrative in a manner that Cameron’s showboat instincts could never fathom.
Class consciousness remains one of the abiding themes throughout A Night to Remember, though Ambler wisely avoids siding with any one demographic. As a matter of fact, the film’s position is more than a little muddied by conflicting attitudes, particularly toward how different classes approach the unfolding catastrophe. While dutifully tweaking upper-class arrogance and entitlement, the film also eulogizes their dignity and sense of decorum. Ambler’s script singles out one little family for gallant treatment, as the father stoically avails himself of patriarchal prerogative to con his wife into boarding a lifeboat with their sleeping son. And just as the film rails against the mistreatment of the immigrant classes, it slyly alleges their animalistic tendency to panic and stampede.
The critical and popular success of A Night to Remember assured a future for director Roy Ward Baker. By the twilight of his career in the 1970s, Baker was applying his no-nonsense visual style to Hammer films like The Vampire Lovers, as well as anthology horror titles like The Vault of Horror for Amicus. A Night to Remember benefits considerably from his ability to frame sequences of both intimacy and large-scale impact with equal adroitness. One of the film’s unforgettable shots shows Lightoller lowering a dead child into the water, though its impact is inopportunely undercut by a too-hasty, decorum-dictated fade to black.
Criterion's 1080p/AVC transfer is nearly impeccable, aside from sporadic bursts of speckling, the occasional scratch, and the incorporation of stock footage into several sequences, which contributes to an unavoidable unevenness in image quality. Consistent with the film's docudrama style, Geoffrey Unsworth's monochrome cinematography keeps to the tonal mid-regions of the grayscale during daytime and indoor scenes, avoiding unseemly displays of flashy high-contrast expressionism, while black levels remain consistently dense and inky in the nighttime scenes that preponderate once disaster strikes. The lossless LPCM mono track delivers crisp, clear dialogue; sound effects gain an added oomph; and there's little in the way or hiss or background noise. All told, image and sound quality display a marked improvement over Criterion's 1998 DVD release.
Criterion supplies an unsinkable boatload of extras, starting off with two supplements that have been ported over from the earlier release: a commentary track and making-of documentary. The engaging and informative commentary from Titanic experts Don Lynch and Rick Marschall offers a lot in the way of facts, figures, and anecdotes concerning the ship and its passengers and crew. As you would expect, Lynch and Marschall zero in on issues of historical accuracy, gauging the pros and cons of the film's set design and props. The fascinating 1993 documentary "The Making of A Night to Remember" divides its time between producer William MacQuitty and Walter Lord, author of the original nonfiction book. MacQuitty recalls his early interest in the Titanic, having witnessed its Belfast launch as a young child, and provides numerous production anecdotes accompanied by rare behind-the-scenes footage, including a look at the elaborate shipboard sets that, powered by hydraulic presses, tilted to varying degrees in order to replicate the ship's slow submersion, and shots of the 35-foot-long model Titanic, afloat in Pinewood Studios' massive water tank, being attended by technicians. MacQuitty also talks about the film's release and reception, how it was a hard sell to "the Yanks" as it lacked any recognizable, bankable stars. Walter Lord discusses his research process, which began by posting letters to the editor in various U.S. and U.K. newspapers asking for eyewitness accounts from survivors, and how the film's ultimate success allowed him, by day a lowly ad agency copywriter, to lead a secret life ("like Walter Mitty") as a TV talk-show guest and man about town.
Subsequent supplements focus on precisely the sort of eyewitness accounts Walter Lord was after: an archival interview with survivor Eva Hart, filmed in 1990, and the Swedish documentary "En Natt att Minnas," made in 1962 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Titanic tragedy, featuring testimony from three Scandinavian survivors mixed in with scenes from A Night to Remember. Hart's testimony, in particular, is gut-wrenching, but the Swedish doc stays pretty pro forma. Finally, the killer iceberg itself gets some attention with its very own BBC documentary ("The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic") that traces the 15,000-year trek of so-called "mega-bergs" from their formation along Greenland's western coast, calving off larger glaciers and travelling down the continent's "ice road," to their eventual release into the currents of the North Atlantic, where the fated berg, likely within a week or two of dissolving entirely, finally encountered the Titanic.
A Night to Remember gets an unforgettable Blu-ray transfer, along with an armada of fascinating extras both old and new, from Criterion.