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A Night to Remember (1958)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A conscientious and straightforward recountal of the Titanic disaster, A Night to Remember strikes a deep note of sorrow in its multitude of stories. In 1912 perhaps the most widely publicised ship of modern times was launched, to great fanfare and acclaim. Arguably the finest ship ever to set sail (metaphorically speaking), its maiden voyage can be nothing but a celebration of Man's ingenuity over Nature's chaos. Across the land people make ready for their voyage, all segregated into First, Second and Steerage Class dependent upon their purchasing power. For Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More), the 2nd officer, this post represents the crowning moment of his career so far. He may even feel prouder than J. Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton), Managing Director of White Star Lines.

In dock Captain Edward Smith (Laurence Naismith) is pleased to note the final passenger tally of 2207 souls, all bound for New York. Already they have separated out into their own, familiar worlds. In first class the fittings are opulent, such that the Titanic lives up to its reputation as a floating palace; Sir (Patrick Waddington) and Lady Richard (Harriette Johns) are in their element. Nearby stands Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), the ship's designer and builder, basking in the glory. Already his mind is considering potential improvements.

Further back, and literally lower down, newlyweds share a vision of future joy. Together they will conquer the New World, carving a place in it for their family. It's a picture familiar to many in Second Class and most in Steerage. Throughout the ship the mood is exuberant, people's spirits elated. Accommodated in surroundings of unsurpassed luxury, for many people far better appointed than their own homes, the trip has a dream-like quality. Numerous iceberg reports flying through the ether, from ships like The Carpathia, mean nothing to them. Their trust lies with men like First Officer William Murdoch (Richard Leech), in command at the time of collision. Misplaced though this belief might be, it is one of the few constraints that allows the crew to retain order.

As might be expected A Night to Remember is moving, intensely so, but such a word misses the point. The film animates deep fears, our most primal responses to danger, and unexpected acts of selflessness. To catch a fragment of this, create in your mind's eye a scene; a man urges his wife and three children into a waiting lifeboat, his face a picture of confidence, determination and love. What the man knows, however, is that the ship will go down and probably take him with it. This is the last instant in which he can gaze upon those he holds most dear. Only as the boat disappears below the lip of the deck does his mask fail, collapsing into loss, despair and resignation. An almost unbearable sight, which even now tightens my throat, this is but one final act of bravery amongst many. These simple moments of finality pull you ever closer to tears; that such sadness can occur.

No single character or group can really be considered to define A Night to Remember. Its power lies in tiny personal ripples, joining to create a tidal wave of heartbreak. With in excess of 200 speaking parts, few have the opportunity to stand proud of this human tapestry. Kenneth More, however, does so; positioned as the linchpin of A Night to Remember, he binds the myriad of threads together. Exuding solidity, intelligence and empathy he embodies the finest of human qualities. Equally impressive, though less prominent, both Naismith and Goodliffe show a cool dedication to the safety of the Titanic and her passengers. Together these three, and the majority of the crew, do their utmost to save lives; thankfully Captain Rostron (Anthony Bushell) responds to their distress calls. Overall not a single member of the cast strikes a hollow note, as conducted by director Roy Ward Baker.

In recreating this most resonant of maritime disasters, Walter Lord's well-researched book plays a vital part. Echoing Lord's mixture of bare facts and individual recollections, A Night to Remember introduces no exaggeration into the story. Instead it focuses on the minor details, the small acts of stupidity and absurdity that culminated in a 200-foot gash. Thus the effects, as impressive as they are, remain believable without being obvious. Photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth, the crazily tilted deck and inner complexity of the Titanic are authentic and crystal-clear; from start to finish there is no question but that all 2207 are in mortal danger. This is a feeling clearly aided, however, by the majestic nature of sea travel. Taking over two hours to dip beneath the waves, there is time for a very gradual, almost unnoticeable, build-up of tension; anxious glances give way to full-blown hysteria. In modern times death comes in seconds and minutes, subtracting this double-edged luxury.

How simple a number 705 is, the final survivor count. Weighted heavily towards the women and children of First Class, only two of these rich women perished. A Night to Remember makes no attempt to balance these two against the Steerage dead, cruelly locked below until it's almost too late. Merely showing the gross inequity is enough; that and the chilling silence that descends upon the ocean, only minutes before filled by screams and cries. Covering all of the emotional bases (greed, fear, courage and restraint), at heart this is an intensely humanistic film. People, not profits, matter.

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