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For Titanic Disaster's 100th Anniversary, 'A Night to Remember' Comes to Criterion Blu-ray: Docudrama meets Pinewood Studios

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood March 29, 2012 at 1:38PM

With James Cameron grabbing headlines for his deep ocean plunges and "Titanic" 3-D re-release, the doomed oceanliner is back in headlines. Another terrific 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.
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"A Night to Remember"
"A Night to Remember"

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.

Criterion cover art for "A Night to Remember"
Criterion cover art for "A Night to Remember"

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.

This article is related to: Classics, Reviews, DVD and VOD, DVDs, Reviews, James Cameron


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.