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A Night to Remember (The Criterion Collection) Review

Though James Cameron’s Titanic holds the title of the most successful film on the ship’s perilous voyage, it can’t claim to be the best. Where the 1997 Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet drama supplanted the true tragedy of the Titanic’s sinking in favor of a half-baked love story, A Night to Remember spreads the attention around an ensemble cast in the final hours before the tragedy and the aftermath as the vessel sinks into the ocean. Director Roy Ward Baker captures the themes of humanity’s connection, hubris, and bravery in a way that not only lets audiences connect with the characters, but to be truly moved by a preventable disaster the likes of which many will never know. The Criterion Collection has restored this docudrama gem to a pristine high-definition print, and now we can enjoy the best film ever made about the Titanic’s fateful voyage.

The overarching tale of the Titanic, which left Southampton in the UK headed for New York City only to sink after a collision with an iceberg, has been explored every which way: both factually and fictionally. The fictional accounts can’t mess with the basic parameters, like its staff and where it sank, but they can take liberties with the stories of the passengers whom, whether for the prestige or the passage, took a ride on the "invincible" ship man had made. The 1958 tale focuses on a number of passengers spread about the socioeconomic scale, as well as the crew, from the senior-most captain, Edward John Smith (Laurence Naismith), to Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More).

In the hours leading up to the Titanic’s historic crash, we see the personal and highly recognizable family dramas play out. Whether they’re couples looking for a getaway, businessmen taking a regular trip to New York City, or lower income family’s hitching a ride in the ship’s economy class quarters, one facet binds them all: genuine human emotion and circumstance. No single character holds sway over the film’s ensemble narrative, and as panic erupts and tempers flare, the best and worst elements of humanity shine through. A Night to Remember builds a brilliant portrait of human character from one of history’s most unnecessarily disastrous voyages.

The film succeeds across the board in terms of what most would define as “good filmmaking”, as it’s not only technically brilliant in how it structures its shots to maximize the feel of living aboard a boat or the unpredictable shifts as the ship breaks up, but it also succeeds in making us interested in a large cast and the ties that bind them without forcing an unconvincingly sudden and shallow romance down the audience’s throat. The sway of the camera gives scenes an unmistakable presence to anyone familiar with a nautical existence, and the sudden movements of the camera go a long towards making a simply constructed set seem technologically advanced in its simulation of a hull breaking apart. It might not use the latest high-tech wizardry to convince us of the peril, but it’s clear all the same and more poignant for one reason: the characters have been well laid out as beings of community, they have family who will mourn their loss. A Night to Remember spends a considerable portion of its time, even mid-cataclysm, to embrace the links between characters. We know they’re doomed, but we still find it disturbing to see them go.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

Besides a fantastic print of the film remastered in high-definition, Criterion Collection's release of A Night to Remember has a few digital supplemental extras. The author and illustrator of “Titanic”: An Illustrated History, Don Lynch and Ken Marshall, offer a highly informative audio commentary that comes close to being a fact-check version of MST3K (without the comedy). The best offering on the disc is a 60-minute documentary on the film’s creation with footage of its production from the personal collection of Producer William MacQuitty. Coming in at a close second in the quality of extras is a series of Swedish interviews with actual survivors of the Titanic, which is then complemented by another archive video interviewing Eva Hart, also a survivor. Finally, a BBC documentary covers discusses the iceberg that sank the Titanic, from its probable size and creation to its fatal contact with the ship. The film’s original theatrical trailer is also included.

Finally, the disc comes with the traditional booklet insert which features an essay on the film’s resilience over the years to remain a relevant cinematic look at proof of man’s folly in believing in his own “technological infallibility”.

"A Night to Remember (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale March 27, 2012 and is not rated. Drama. Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Written by Walter Lord (book), Eric Ambler (screenplay). Starring Kenneth More, Ronald Allen, Robert Ayres, Honor Blackman, Laurence Naismith.

Apr
16
2012
Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.

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