Sunday, April 15, 2012

Remembering A Night to Remember

Adapted by novelist Eric Ambler from Walter Lord’s non-fiction account of the sinking of the Titanic and directed by Roy Ward Baker, A Night to Remember – now available in a newly remastered DVD print from Criterion – is a small classic of understated English filmmaking. It has an enormous cast, and the crowd scenes are impressively staged (and, in the moments when the passengers who haven’t been hoisted onto the inadequate number of lifeboats begin to panic, tense and frightening), but Baker manages to retain a feeling of intimacy. He works modestly, focusing as much as possible on individual characters and details. In the 1997 Titanic, James Cameron took three hours plus to tell a preposterously fictionalized version of the story – almost twice as long as it took the ocean liner to sink. Baker’s film is two-thirds the length of Cameron’s, most of it in real time, and he doesn’t make things up. He doesn’t need to, since the truth is far more dramatic and moving than anything Cameron could devise.

The true-life narrative provides its own terrifying structure and Baker resists the urge to punch it up. The film has a mournful inevitability, and most of the poignant moments come from the characters’ acceptance of the fate of the ship and their own fate along with it. Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith), whose girth and beard already give him a regal look, takes on the aura of one of Shakespeare’s tragic English kings as it becomes apparent that the nearest ship, the Californian, which they can clearly see at a distance, isn’t responding to their distress signals, and the next closest, the Carpathia, can’t make it to them in less than four hours. The Titanic’s engineer, Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), is the one who delivers the bad news soberly and without much affect in his voice, but his feeling is in his wide eyes – and, of course, in his behavior. As the ship begins to list, he goes below to the now-deserted ballroom and awaits the end. There’s the card sharp (George Rose) who continues playing solitaire; he tells the second officer, Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More) – the closest the film has to a protagonist – that they’ve simply drawn a bad hand. Isidor Strauss (Meier Tzelniker) and his wife Ida (Helen Misener), who refuses to leave his side, stand faithfully on deck; their distinctly Jewish brand of fatalism mixed with warmth is juxtaposed with the gentlemanly conduct of the most famous financier on board, Benjamin Guggenheim (Harold Goldblatt). Guggenheim removes his life jacket because it’s uncomfortable and undignified, and his valet, who stays with him, emulates his master at the end of his life as he’s presumably done throughout it. And the orchestra, led by the violinist Wallace Hartley (Charles Belchier), moves out on deck and plays as the lifeboats are lowered and even afterwards, finally striking up “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” On the other hand, Jack Phillips (Kenneth Griffith), the wireless operator, refuses to accept the futility of sending Morse code, though his assistant, Harold Bride, practically drags him away from his desk; it’s only the attempt of a marauder to steal one of their life jackets that distracts Phillips from what he perceives, more and more desperately, to be his duty. (A very young David McCallum, half a dozen years away from his TV hit The Man from U.N.C.L.E., plays Bride.)
Robbie Lucas (John Merrivale) talks to Captain Smith
One of my favorite scenes displays the limitations of English reserve. John Merivale who plays Robbie Lucas, one of the aristocrats, asks Captain Smith straight out for the truth about the ship’s condition very shortly after they hit the iceberg, assuring him that he isn’t the sort who panics. Then he returns to his cabin and informs his wife quietly that she has to wake their young children and get them ready for the lifeboats. He insists that she can’t remain with him and assures her that he’ll be along later, though the look they exchange belies his words. He’s cheerful as he bids her and his two little girls goodbye, but he holds onto his son – who has fallen asleep in his arms – for a moment longer, kissing him and murmuring an endearment. This is the only scene in the movie, I believe, that encompasses anything like conventional sentiment, and because it’s unique and plays against the held-in-check emotion of every other scene (including Robbie’s other scenes), of course it doesn’t feel conventional at all (or sentimental).
Cameron’s Titanic whipped up a lot of nonsense about class, inventing a working-class hero (Leonardo DiCaprio) to steal the heroine (Kate Winslet) away from her sneering, underhanded aristocratic fiancĂ© (Billy Zane). It’s the most offensive item in the movie because so many of the wealthy on board the ship behaved courageously and unselfishly. Baker and Ambler’s class commentary is subtle, authentic, and far more revealing. In one scene (before most people on board realize the direness of the situation) some steerage passengers from Belfast play street hockey with slabs of ice while a couple from first class watches from above, he with envy at the fun they appear to be having. (He wants to join in, but his wife won’t permit him to mix with the working class.) When the lifeboats are being filled one of the stewards keeps the steerage passengers below, but some of the Irish break away and sneak up, suddenly finding themselves in the ballroom. “First class!” one of the women whispers, and they linger for a moment, awestruck at this illicit glimpse of a life they’ve only imagined. At the other end of the spectrum is Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire), the low-born American who climbed effortlessly into the upper class when her husband struck gold but retained her western rural unpretentiousness all her life. It’s she who offers to help out the seamen in her lifeboat by picking up an oar (and volunteering other women in the boat to help) and she who is resolute that they turn around and steer closer to the tipping ship so that they can pack the tiny space with more survivors. It’s an inspiriting moment. All told, A Night to Remember makes you feel pretty good about humanity.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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