A NIGHT TO REMEMBER—-Walter Lord’s classic 1955 book had as much accuracy as was available at the time on the 43-year-old sinking of the Titanic, with deep-dive exploration & conclusions waiting 31 years in the future. After a hit adaptation for live TV came this highly-regarded 1958 epic starring one of Britain’s most popular, likable and convincing leading men, Kenneth More, impressively produced (the $1,680,000 budget huge by British standards at the time), superlatively directed by Roy Ward Baker.
Thriller novelist and veteran screenwriter Eric Ambler did a fine job weaving cinema sense out of Lord’s multi-layered tale, not in terms of pacing, as Lord’s book had raced like an action film, but in editing and adjusting the bulging wealth of detail to fit into 123 minutes so it not only persuaded as a documentary but resounded as moving drama. It needed to nail that, following the vivid emotional memory wake carved five years earlier by the first Hollywood version.
After a fast half-hour of background and smart, quick-sketched introductions of at least two dozen passengers and crew, the ship hits the fan and the tension never lets up, as the tragedy unfolds in not much less time than the actual sinking (which took two hours and forty minutes).
Excellent camera (ace Geoffrey Unsworth), class-A special effects, model work and sets, taut editing and suitably stirring music scoring from William Alwyn complement the all-round fine performances. All the while, the script deftly allows equal time for irony, sacrifice, cowardice, devotion, panic and duty, all beneath and beyond the rigid (make that infuriating) class distinctions and manners of the age. For each who dressed to “go down like a gentleman” there was another sniffing with disdain over the noise made by all those drowning steerage people. Gallantry and hypocrisy. Certainty and hubris. The technological marvel of the day, and natures icy, implacable indifference: the North Atlantic checkmates ‘unsinkable’.
At 43, the affable More was a big star in England, and his confident turn here as Second Officer Lightoller brought him greater international fandom. He’s backed by a deckful of actors who would soon be familiar to wider audiences: Honor Blackman, David McCallum, Laurence Naismith, and—in blink-and-miss bits—unknowns Bernard Fox, Desmond Llewelyn and a lean 28-year-old Scot named Sean Connery.
Rightfully considered a classic, this gripping rendering of the timeless story that stands watch as The Great Metaphor and about as clean a divide between The Old World and the modern age as fate could devise. For many it’s the fall-back favorite of the three great films* about RMS Titanic. I love them all. Growing up with the 1953 Clifton Webb/Barbara Stanwyck heartbreaker, tireless readings of Lord’s wonderful book, this winner, and then Cameron’s eye-boggling 1997 superspectacle; like zillions of Titanic fanciers around the globe, I’m soul-connected to Lightoller, Capt.Smith, Mr.Andrews, Molly Brown, Guggenheim and Astor, Mr. & Mrs. Strauss, the aghast lookouts in the crows nest, watertight doors, the drunken cook, the heroic bandsmen….anyone not moved by at least one of these versions needs to have their heart replaced with one that beats.
With Michael Goodlife, Kenneth Griffith, John Merivale, Frank Lawton, Tucker McGuire, George Rose, Michael Bryant, Harold Goldblatt, Norman Rossington, Andrew Keir, John Richardson.
* Purists don’t count the 1943 Nazi-made farrago or the several lame TV movies.