Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Night to Remember (1958)

Forget James Cameron's "Titanic" (1997), that mawkish melodrama, most remembered for the Jack-Rose steamy romance, rather than the colossal tragedy that was supposed to be the ultimate takeaway. Roy Ward Baker's "A Night to Remember" (1958), based on Walter Lord's book of the same name, did a much better job. No needless romanticism, no emotional manipulation, no fictional characters; just fully focused, straight-out chronicling of the final hours of the unsinkable ship, with a number of tiny episodes revolving around tiny characters that linger in your memory long after the final frame.

Just half an hour into the film, after warming us up to the environment and the characters, the ship makes its fatal collision with the dreaded iceberg, and its final one and half hour, as estimated by the ship's designer Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), begins to unfold.

Notable is how the film does not concentrate on the one supposed protagonist, Second officer Lightoller (Kenneth More), but rather on a multitude of other secondary characters as all of them share a disastrous fate, and not to intend any pun, are sailing on the same boat! Although we know the outcome, the Eric Ambler/Roy Baker team of writer/director ensures tautness all the way through. 

As the ship sinks, so do our hearts, when any hope of help arriving on time is thwarted, thanks to the infuriatingly clumsy behavior of the crew of the Californian just ten miles away! The writers seem to have taken real life accounts from survivors. Did it really happen this way? The neglect of such monumental proportions is baffling; help wasn't extended when it was only a stone's throw away. Imagine the number of lives that would've been saved in this completely avoidable catastrophe!

The inevitable eventually happens, as it happened, in the most unimaginably brutal fashion. Pandemonium gradually builds up, and the race for survival begins and ends in a devastating culmination. While we, the viewers watch the horror unfold with bated breaths, from the comfort of our living rooms, one shudders to imagine what the passengers must have actually gone through on that fateful night, as they gave in to the call of death.

The camera work and effects are most astonishing for the 50s, barring the visibly fake iceberg. For instance, the ingenious technique of shifting an entire set by a hydraulic mechanism, to produce a tilting effect, complete with the creaking sounds intact, is a masterstroke. So is the gentle rocking effect of a floating ship that gives you a feeling of actually being a part of the action. Among the many haunting images that are a direct result of these effects, are the ones of the soup/food cart gliding across the dining hall, as does the rocking horse.

No words for the band of musicians and their attempts to "soothe the nerves". That is some hearty courage on display. It is all the more believable though, for music has an unparalleled strength, and it keeps them going.

Some of the faces that stay in memory despite having minuscule roles are:

1. One of the youths from the steerage (perhaps an inspiration for Cameron to extend and write the character of Jack?).

2. The man with three children, who seeks the direct truth from Andrews; and mouths the chilling lines - "I take it you and I may both be in the same boat later".

3. The baker who guzzles scotch: "All roads lead to Rome", and in a quirky turn of events, survives the chilled waters owing to the alcohol content in his body!

4. The old man who takes in a lost child looking for his mom and comforts him 'til the end (most heartbreaking).

5. The recurring image of a man desperately clinging on to two wooden chairs (?) in order to help stay afloat later, but ultimately loses them as the ship makes its final plunge.

6. The snobbish first class passengers who gamble and drink away at a table being blissfully ignorant of the chaos outside; only when the whisky in the glass tilts to a considerable extent, is anything even noticed! "You can't sink this boat, that's certain", exclaims one of them. The unsinkable nature of Titanic is often talked about in the film; and more so coming from this elite class of individuals, perhaps in a way mocking their arrogance and overconfidence about the infallibility of man-made technological advancements against nature's great power.

One wonders though, if in an attempt to keep the melodrama at bay and maintain a mostly objective view of the tragedy, did the filmmaker go overboard with the stoic characterizations of Lightoller and Andrews? It is doubtful if it is an acting fault, and the body language including facial expressions of both these men seem to exhibit that they are strangely unperturbed by the events happening around them. If you are gonna face certain death soon, how could you remain cool and smile on occasion? Granted, one may not necessarily start taking giant panic breaths or go hysterical, but there is such a thing as being too calm!

Andrews does display a silent acceptance of defeat and hopelessness in but one shot. But Lightoller seems to be made of stone all along. Even after the ship finally sinks and he commands the overturned boat, the lines he utters and the way he utters them with a slight frown and nothing more, seems as though he came out of some very mundane episode and not a disaster as mammoth as it really was.

Nonetheless, Baker and team have given us a controlled, thoroughly restrained and what is perhaps the best celluloid depiction of one of the deadliest disasters humankind has ever seen. Wish Cameron had taken a lesson or two about directing from this film, instead of shamelessly replicating some scenes and lines in his bloated blockbuster.

Score: 9/10

1 comment:

  1. I have watched Titanic. Of course, the romance out shown the tragedy of the collisions. Life in any way tragic at the end. In a way, I think, as humans we invent romance, humour etc. to spice up life to lessen the effect of the unbearable reality, at times.