Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Night to Remember (1958) - #7

I don't think the Board of Trade regulations ever visualized this situation. Do you? 

Even though the significance of any particular Criterion DVD's spine number varies from appropriately symbolic (think of #1, Jean Renoir's majestic Grand Illusion or last year's ceremonial selection of the Rossellini War Trilogy box as #500) to mostly random and meaningless (just about all the other films in the collection), there's something about being in the Top Ten of any sequentially numbered group of objects that lends a measure of gravitas. Each of the films, except for the one at hand here, seems to have had a larger-than-usual degree of attention paid to it by the Criterion fan base. #2 (Seven Samurai) is a perennial favorite that was honored with one of the most lavishly expansive upgrades a film has ever received a couple years back, with its transformation to Blu-ray finalized last fall. After bouncing in and out of print a few times over the years, #5, The 400 Blows, was among Criterion's earliest Blu-ray releases, in addition to anchoring the Adventures of Antoine Doinel box set. #'s 3, 4, 6 and 10 have all received overhauls on DVD as technology advanced past the primitive non-anamorphic letterbox format and mediocre transfers of Criterion's 1998 vintage releases, with #4 (Amarcord) scheduled to soon follow in the steps of #10 (Walkabout) for its debut in the Blu-ray format. And even the out-of-print titles #8 and #9 (John Woo's Hard Boiled and The Killer) fetch high price tags on the secondary market and are regularly admired as exemplary specimens of contemporary action films. (Not to mention the gnashing and wailing triggered by their substandard non-Criterion Blu-rays last year.) 

But hardly anybody talks about poor neglected Spine #7, or so it seems to me. And it's not too hard to understand why. Even though A Night to Remember is a lovingly crafted tribute to the doomed luxury liner HMS Titanic, it doesn't feature any noteworthy stars, and its subject matter has been more definitively captured (according to the tastes of today's mass audience anyway) by the 1997 release that I must believe prompted Criterion to include this particular film among their very first DVD offerings back in '98: James Cameron's Titanic, which was at the time the most commercially lucrative film ever made. Who can blame a small indie fledgling enterprise like Criterion for wanting to get in on that action by releasing their own "important and classic" rendition of the same story?

But lest we forget, A Night to Remember was a pretty big deal back in 1958 - the most expensive film produced in England up until that time, based on a popular bestselling book of the same title, and an impressive display of state-of-the-art special effects for its era. Meticulously researched by advertising copywriter Walter Lord, the book on which the movie was based still stands as an authoritative text on the incredible sequence of events that sealed the sad fate of a great technological marvel and over 1500 people who perished in the middle of the night on April 15, 1912 after the ship hit an iceberg two and half hours earlier. Its success as a fact-based exposition of what really happened caught the attention of William MacQuitty, a British producer who had actually seen the Titanic launch as a boy growing up in Belfast and shared Walter Lord's lifelong fascination with the subject. He saw the book as a perfect basis for filming an as-accurate-as-possible recreation of events to stand as an account for the ages. It was A Night to Remember indeed, that captured a fascinating scope of human drama, in all its courage and ineptitude, nobility and pettiness, grandeur and futility, for us to reflect on - and not forget! - for a good long time.

Of course, what ultimately did wind up happening is that the real story of the Titanic was mythologized and employed in the pursuit of generating massive showbiz profits and diversionary entertainment that, on its own terms, proved wildly effective and successful. And not only in Cameron's version, which to this day casts such a huge shadow that it's practically impossible to watch or even write about A Night to Remember without drawing comparisons and contrasts with the Oscar-winning romance/disaster/epic/blockbuster megahit that came out nearly forty years later. Other films, both before and after this Rank Studios project, exploited the undeniable power of the Titanic's story, fictionalizing and melodramatizing events however they saw fit. Be that as it may, I found A Night to Remember to land pretty close to what I was wishing the 1997 version of Titanic would have been when I saw it in theaters, the one and only time I ever sat through the whole thing. Just show me what happened, without the gun fights, chase scenes and steamed-up car windows, along with dozens of fictional characters who had no role in the historic events. I always figured that the real stories of actual people and their uniquely messy situations and peculiarities offered more than enough substance to draw from for making a good movie.

But James Cameron isn't just looking to make a "good movie," hence the need to overlay it with numerous elements that made Titanic the massive sensation and phenomenon it eventually turned into. I don't begrudge him that, it's just that his approach didn't hold my interest enough to draw me back for multiple viewings. So I'll leave it at that.

A Night to Remember, on the other hand, kept me riveted as the disaster unfolded with stately clockwork elegance. The precisely accurate reconstructions of the ship's interiors and exteriors looked familiar, based on my previous exposure to Cameron's equally rigorous sets (I'm sure this movie was studied minutely in his pre-production) and I really enjoyed the black & white cinematography and skillfully handled miniature work as well. While the older styles lack the visual wow factor that modern CGI carries (or at least used to, before it became ubiquitous and cheesy-looking from overuse in recent years), the deep blacks and general aura of dignity conveyed by the monochrome served this story well.

Likewise, the performances are uniformly realistic, plausible and tastefully restrained, even as the situation grows more desperate in the ship's final minutes.  There aren't any outsized personalities capable of competing with Kate and Leo/Rose and Jack, but again, that's to this film's benefit. Instead, we're given brief vignettes ranging from the heroic valor shown by crewmen who usher "women and children first" to safety even as they grapple with the fact of their soon approaching death, to the comic resignation of a baker who's preparing to meet his maker with the assistance of his contraband traveling mate Johnnie Walker. We even get a stirring rendition of "Nearer My God To Thee" by the Titanic string orchestra as the tipping bow points lower and lower.

A main point of this particular telling of Titanic's tale was to illustrate the distinctions between social classes that was maintained right up until the end, showing the compelling power that such mental constructs and cultural habits had on the passengers and crew, particularly those men in the upper classes who accepted their imminent demise with the proverbial stiff upper lip. They're not necessarily celebrated or held up as role models in doing so - to me, the purpose was to demonstrate how irrational and dehumanizing that whole social system turned out to be in its calm and quietly sophisticated way. Of course, none of that prevented the marketing people from sexing up the publicity materials a bit...

The fertility of Titanic-as-metaphor has by now been worn down to a threadbare cliche, so I won't expound much on it here myself, though I can say the account of its sinking still retains its ability to intrigue and haunt our imagination, and this film is a great way to ponder it all. What impresses me the most about A Night to Remember though is just the sheer nerdiness of the project. Walter Lord's process of writing the book began decades before the idea of publishing and selling it had ever occurred to him. He was just a guy who got drawn in by a compelling story, so he began researching, gathering data, collecting and compiling bits of information wherever he could find it, ultimately resorting to writing letters to newspaper editors seeking as many survivors of the tragedy as he could find some forty years later. Likewise, producer MacQuitty's path was illuminated by the same obsessive fire, and it led them to collaborate with a large crew of craftsmen and technicians to create what amounts to a visual shrine in honor of one of the most mind-boggling calamities of the 20th century. A Night to Remember is an altogether admirable achievement, one deserving of much more than a merely passing glance.

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