A Night to Remember (1958) Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Stunning Presentation for a Genuine Classic

I've never paid to see James Cameron's film, but I'd gladly pay ten-times over to see this one again and again.
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“I don’t think the Board of Trade regulations visualized this situation.” —Capt. Edward John Smith (Laurence Naismith), upon learning his ship is going to sink.

Night to RememberWell, since I know there is absolutely no chance whatsoever (during anyone’s lifetime) that James Cameron will apologize to the entire population of the whole planet for making a certain overrated and pretentious moving picture nightmare about the Titanic (I see no need to mention the name of the film outright), I suppose someone else will have to do it for him And, while I assume no responsibility for his actions — I don’t even know (or like) the man — I feel that I should be the one to do it: folks, James Cameron is one truly sorry man. Really, he is.

Now, should you find yourself wondering what a good movie about the only voyage of the doomed passenger liner RMS Titanic would look like (or you just want to know which movie inspired Cameron to make his record-breaking turd), you need look no further than the 1958 feature film A Night to Remember. While it certainly wasn’t the first film adaptation of the (in)famous disaster, this version — helmed by the great Roy Ward Baker (who would later several Hammer and Amicus horror classics) — is definitely the best. It’s also the most historically accurate of the lot. Based on the non-fiction novel by American author Walter Lord, the film presents an earnest, well-made depiction of the sailing and subsequent sinking of the ship — and the ordeal the passengers went through.

Director Baker keeps things tight as the drama grows more tense, tilting his camera to the side ever so slightly with each scene to heighten the sense of security. Unlike most of the men and women depicted in Cameron’s so-called epic, the main characters we see in A Night to Remember are based on real individuals. Walter Lord tracked down many survivors when he was working on his novel, and the film crew behind this masterpiece did the same, bringing several of the real-life heroes in to serve as technical advisors on the project.

Of course, you can’t create a good drama without having some damn good actors and actresses onboard — and A Night to Remember boasts an impressive cast of (mostly) British greats, with Kenneth More taking the lead here as Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, who is the main hero of our story. Other stars included here are Ronald Allen, Robert Ayres, Honor Blackman, Anthony Bushell, Michael Goodlife, David McCallum, Laurence Naismith, Geoffrey Bayldon, and George Rose (Burke, in The Flesh and the Fiends), who is particularly delightful as the Chief Baker who casually goes about drinking Johnny Walker while the ship sinks. Future celebrities Sean Connery, Desmond Llewelyn, and Bernard Fox (all of whom were in one James Bond film or another) appear in bit parts.

The Criterion Collection had previously released this work of art as part of their lineup in 1998, but the quality was nowhere near as magnificent as it is here. This new High-Def transfer is as wondrous as the film itself, and the clarity, detail, and contrast are as breathtaking as jumping into the freezing water of the Atlantic. One fine example of how good the presentation is: there was a small scene missing on the original Criterion DVD wherein Kenneth More was handed a child in the water and discovered it was dead, releasing it into the water shortly afterward. Thankfully, that scene has been reinstated here -- though it’s obvious when you see the movie now that the “child” is actually a mannequin.

Most (if not all) of the bonus materials from the ‘98 DVD release (a trailer, audio commentary making-of documentary) have been carried over to this Blu-ray issue, and new supplemental features — new and vintage documentaries, mostly on actual survivors, and one on the iceberg that sank the ship, too (!) — are on-hand as well. This is a fine lineup of goodies, and complements the main feature perfectly.

In short: I’ve never paid to see James Cameron’s film, but I’d gladly pay ten-times over to see this one again and again. Highly recommended.

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