Monday, December 5, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: A Night to Remember (1958)

Kenneth More
Ronald Allen
Robert Ayres
Honor Blackman
Anthony Bushell
Michael Goodliffe
Kenneth Griffith
Frank Lawton
David McCallum

My first encounter with Titanic came when the 1953 Titanic film starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck ran on the old NBC weekly film showcase, Saturday Night at the Movies. But it was Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember which I read some many years later that actually made my interest in Titanic soar. It was considered at that time to be the Titanic bible.
It was an up close and personal look at everything leading up to the sinking and its aftermath, including facts, minute details, and more importantly interviews with the survivors. But it would be even longer until I would have the chance to view the film version of the book, which was made to set the record straight about the many myths and fallacies depicted in the 1953 film.

Trying to compare A Night to Remember to Cameron's Titanic is something that probably shouldn't be attempted or is even a fair comparison.  But unfortunately, there’s a good number of self proclaimed fans of A Night to Remember, who view the film as nothing more than a tool to beat and bash Cameron’s epic film, and can’t review this film without announcing their disdain for that one from the mountain tops as if one has something to do with the other.   Up until Cameron’s ultra successful film was released, a good portion of those who discovered their instant love for A Night to Remember  had long forgotten about Lord’s book and the film that bears it’s title.  Generally, their review (if you want to call it that) will consist of paragraph after paragraph as to why A Night to Remember is so superior to Cameron’s just totally useless and shitty film, instead of just reviewing A Night to Remember on it’s own merits and leaving Cameron’s film out of it.  But having put up with that horse crap for the past 14 or so years, turnabout is fare play.  But there is a difference between my comparison and theirs.  It really is possible to like both films for what they bring to the table.      

For instance, Cameron had the advantages of a huge budget, and certainly his film benefited in some ways from present day technology and facts that we have learned about Titanic since A Night to Remember was released back in 1958. Cameron benefited greatly from the discovery of the wreck by Robert Ballard and his crew, and by his own expeditions down through the ocean depths to encounter the ship wreckage. Add to that today's computer technology, which has pretty much been able to deconstruct the sinking from the time it hit the iceberg to the time it landed in its final resting place on the Ocean floor, and the advantages Cameron had in that regards become readily apparent.

A Night to Remember is a fairly accurate portrayal of most of the events leading up to and including the sinking of the Titanic as told in Lord's book, but it is not nearly as expansive or filled with the wealth of details that the book was. On film, that would have been impossible to do. A Night to remember is a black and white film and was released almost forty years before James Cameron's epic retelling of the story. Although it doesn't come close technically to Cameron's version, it is a good film in many aspects.

Most of the film is played out as a "You Are There" type of docu-drama where we meet many of the people who were on the ship at the time of its demise. The film centers on Second Officer Lightoller, played by British Actor Kenneth More.
I first came to admire More when he played Jolyon in The Forsyte Saga way back in the late sixties when PBS aired it here in the states as the opening salvo in what would later become Masterpiece Theater. More is the kind of actor that no matter what role he is playing, you can instantly identify with him or the character he is playing just because he always seemed so damn likable.

But since A Night to Remember is a British film, I will be careful not to belittle one of our allies cinematic accomplishments. I won't do that because I learned an important lesson in the first few minutes of A Night to Remember. As Lightoller and his wife Sylvia are on a train headed to Belfast, he is reading a soap ad from a magazine proudly proclaiming itself as the official Titanic soap. Lightoller ends the reading by jesting "for first class only of course, the rest of the passengers don't bathe." At which point a stuffed shirt sitting in the same compartment admonishes Lightoller and his wife for mocking England’s crowning achievement, The Titanic.

Lightoller's wife is more than happy to inform Mr. Stuffed Shirt that they quite agree as her husband is headed to join the Titanic as the ship's second officer. It's a brief scene, but it is one that accomplishes quite a bit. We learn that indeed, there is a class distinction in which the Upper Class is seen as civilized and everybody else are unwashed cretins. We also discover that there is a strong belief that the unsinkable Titanic is a symbol of man's greatest accomplishments and demonstrative of his final victory over nature and the elements.

We quickly jump off the train so that we can join Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in progress. The stay is brief but it is just long enough for us to bear witness to their overly pampered lifestyle of the upper crust and their total disdain for anything and anyone beneath their station in life. This includes watching a group of workhouse orphans standing by the side of the road waving goodbye.

"What are they doing," the woman asks.
"Assuring themselves of their Christmas turkey," the man replies.

After a meet and greet with Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith), Thomas Andrews and Chairman Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton) we watch as Titanic sets sails. Director Roy Baker and Screenwriter Eric Ambler don't spend time letting grass grown under the bough as we jump immediately to the fateful day of the sinking on April 14.

We spend a bit of time watching the first class passengers dine and then hop downstairs as the steerage passenger’s party in the lower decks. Director Baker doesn't linger with either group, but stays just long enough to let us understand that in 1912, just like in 2011 there are the haves and have nots.

We had already seen earlier the disdain that the upper crust has for the less fortunate, but it is a scene that is unfortunately not followed up on here, although one gets the feeling that those in steerage don't hold it against the aristocrats for their lot in life. It's as if class distinction is just the way life is meant to be. Or at least that is what the writer and director would have us believe initially.

We are then whisked away so that we can meet Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire) as she is retelling the story of how her and her husband had struck it rich. But again, we are not privileged to know whether or not those she is having dinner with view the fact that she wasn't born into their station in life as something to look disdainfully down through with their noses.

Baker prefers instead to concentrate on the missed communications regarding ice and icebergs between Titanic and other ships in the area, particularly the infamous Californian. Captain Smith acknowledges the first two telegrams regarding the ice with the comment that "they'll keep a sharp eye." When more telegrams arrive over the wireless, they are accidentally discarded instead of being delivered to Smith or one of the other officers.

It's kind of odd to watch as the Californian does it's best to inform the Titanic of the ice fields, and yet later would become the goat of the disaster by not recognizing that the Titanic was in distress when it was within visual range of those keeping watch. Worse yet, when the Californian tries to send a final warning, the wireless operator on the Titanic tells them to butt out while they send the all important greetings home for the passengers.

When the collision does come, it is over almost as quickly as it happens. We see the Titanic shake a bit, we watch as ice falls onto the ship, and we watch as some of the crew escape from the flooding engine rooms before the water tight doors close behind them.

Afterwards there seems to be no sense of urgency among anybody. The passengers are told there is nothing to worry about, and even the crewmen who continue to stroke the fires as they stand in water up to their thighs aren't sure there is anything to stress over. When one of the stewards is questioned by a passenger, he simply tells them that the reason the ship stopped is so that in case of an iceberg they wouldn't want to have to run over top of it as if the unsinkable ship could do such a thing.

Even as Andrews relates to the Captain that the ship will indeed sink, everything seems to be taking place in a calm orderly matter of fact manner. Amazingly, even as Smith is giving out assignments to get the passengers off of the ship there is no sense of urgency despite the fact that Andrews had just related that there was only an hour and a half left before the ship would sink.

In the first class cabins the stewards knock until the doors are opened and go inside each compartment to pull down the life jackets. In the lower decks they knock, yell for the passengers to put on their life jackets and quickly move on. Making matters worse is the fact that many of those in steerage speak little or no English.

When it comes to getting on the lifeboats to escape, Director Baker pulls no punches with the first class passengers as he seemed to do earlier. Here they are shown for the spoiled overindulged pompous jackasses that they were.

Crew member: Will you kindly step into the boat ma'am?
Woman: What? And catch my death of cold?
Woman: This boat is too small. I can't be comfortable in a boat such as this.

And to top it off, many of them descend on the ship's purser to get their jewelry and valuables out of the safe before heading for the lifeboats. I say they should have let them drink salt water.

The steerage passengers are left to find their own escape. We follow one group who finally makes it to the first class dining room and upon entering, stand almost in awe of its stunning opulence. They are like a child seeing the Magic Kingdom at Disney World on their very first visit.

Although the Californian ignores the distress calls of the Titanic, further away an alert radio man aboard the Carpathia recognizes the SOS, awakens the Captain who then orders his ship to turn around at full speed through dangerous ice fields in a heroic effort to make it to the Titanic. Also heroic are the workers below deck of the Titanic, doing their best to not only keep the ship afloat but to keep the generators cranking out power as long as possible.

Like I mentioned before, Night is almost a documentary retelling of the Titanic film while Cameron used a fictional story as a backdrop for his Titanic. It's hard to argue with either choice, as both methods work well for what they want to accomplish. The main difference is that in Night, because of its style, it is much more difficult to become as emotionally involved in what is going on. We see lots of different stories about why the ship sank, but the story of the passengers and what they went through is not delved into as deeply as in Cameron's film. Some may nit pick Cameron's love story, but by focusing on it, he enables us to know the passengers better through Jack and Rose, the people they associate with be they friends or enemies.   Night, by virtue of it’s documentary styling,  jumps around from story to story and has to crowd an awful lot into a running time of just over two hours.

Don't get me wrong, there are moments that you'll be effected by in Night, but they are much fewer and lack the dramatic impetus that they should have had because Director Baker chose not to focus on the human element, and instead decided that basically filming a checklist of events from Lord’s book was the way to go.

We see the passengers, we know who they are, what they are about, we know the class system that was in effect, but we never really can relate to them on a personal one to one level. Surely we feel for their tragedy, but no more or no less than we did when we watched the three part documentary that ran on A&E several years ago.  You find out more about Olympic athletes in an Up Close and Personal segment than we do about the passengers on the Titanic in this film.

On the other hand, A Night to Remember, gives us more details of certain events that are left out of Titanic. Mainly, the Californian and Carpathia story was hardly touched on in Cameron's film. Cameron explained this in later interviews saying that by taking the film away from the events happening on the ship, it would perhaps make the film lose its focus on the story he had to tell. He wanted us to concentrate almost entirely on the human tragedy and not be distracted from it by wandering needlessly around the ship. And for what he was trying to do and the success that he had one certainly can't argue with him for that.

There are a lot of small but memorable scenes in A Night to Remember. A woman returns for her lucky pig while leaving her jewelry behind, a shady gambler who shows more class than those he was winning money from, a drunken crewman throwing chairs overboard for passengers to float on, and a heart breaking scene where an elder gentleman tries to comfort a young child who lost his mother. Certainly there will be some scenes that you'll quickly recognize if you've seen Cameron's film including Thomas Andrews telling a young couple what to do when the ship sinks, just as he did for Rose in Cameron's film. But if Baker wanted to have a greater emotional impact, perhaps he should have centered his story telling on just a few of the real life passengers, have them intermingle as Rose and Jack did, and worked from there.

The fact that most of the lifeboats did not attempt to rescue anyone, was portrayed much more dramatically in Titanic. This films show us their last moments in the water, but it is sanitized to a at least some degree. When a boat finally does return, there is not a mass of frozen bodies for it to float through in order to execute a rescue.

Night does examine the fact that several of the early lifeboats that were lowered into the water with far less than capacity and that if you were a guy and went to the other side of the ship your chances of being in a lifeboat increased ten fold. In fact, the point is touched upon in the beginning of this film that the lifeboats could have carried 1200 but as you know, just over 700 were saved. But it certainly was an issue that could have been covered more in depth in both films.

Another major difference in Night is that we get a captain who is more a victim of circumstances than anything else. In Titanic, Cameron portrays him more as a bumbling fool, who made too many mistakes and compounded the tragedy with his inability to take charge even to give a simple order to evacuate passengers. Whose portrayal is more accurate? That is something we may never know except for this: The fact that many lifeboats were launched half full and the fact that it took so long to begin loading the passengers, would leave me to believe that Captain Smith was totally inadequate in a crisis situation. And although not getting the final ice warnings were not entirely his fault, his actions and reactions to the ones he did receive left something to be desired.

It’s hard to say much about the acting here, because so much of it is unimportant as to what is happening on the screen since most of the cast, except for the Captain, Lightoller, and the rest of the crew, have only brief scenes. The passengers remain an enigma. But you may watch for David McCallum as a telegraph operator. Most of you know him as Dr. Donald Mallard from NCIS. I know him better as Illya Kuryakin of The Man From Uncle.

I will not even compare the technical aspects as obviously, Cameron's film would come out way ahead because as I said earlier it was filmed forty years later. With what they had to work with, A Night to Remember does well to recreate the ship and the sinking, along with the many reasons for it. But though the film is certainly worth watching for many reasons, I can't help but feel that although Roy Bakers direction gets the job done and is workmanlike, for a film of this subject matter and this much intensity it lacks imagination in the way many of the scenes are filmed and framed. 

Despite that, and the fact that certain aspects don't hold up well, the film should be viewed if you have never seen it before. It fills in the gaps and provides much information that you may not have know about previously and it offers it up in a very engrossing narrative that draws you in from the very opening scenes. And when a film does that, any film, I have no choice but to give it my grade which for A Night to Remember is an unsinkable B+.

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