Of all the epic disasters dramatized on film, the sinking of the Titanic seems to inspire the greatest degree of sensitivity from writers and directors. Although natural calamities can exact a similar human toll, there's something about Titanic that wrenches the heart and twists the gut. Maybe it's because 1,500 innocent people died due to man's arrogance and bravado, or because simple safety measures that could have curtailed the number of casualties were cavalierly deemed unnecessary, or, most moving of all, because men and women displayed remarkable honor and courage on that fateful night, losing their lives with a dignity and quiet acceptance that seem foreign today.
Whatever the reasons, Titanic continues to fascinate and haunt us more than a century after the luxury liner scraped the side of an iceberg and sank to the ocean floor. Sixty years ago, the first major Hollywood film to chronicle the ship's ill-fated voyage premiered. Often dwarfed by James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster and the definitive British semi-documentary 'A Night to Remember' (1958), the 1953 version of 'Titanic' is no less memorable or emotionally affecting. Clocking in at a lean 98 minutes, director Jean Negulesco tells the Titanic's devastating tale in less time than it takes Cameron to navigate the ship into the ice field. The lack of a bloated love story helps, but the elder 'Titanic' separates itself from its sister films by largely focusing on one splintering family and how the disaster shapes and changes it.
The wealthy Sturges clan leads a whirlwind life of privilege and pleasure, flitting from one ritzy European locale to another. Wife Julia (Barbara Stanwyck) has come to despise the shallow existence, and worries the excess and prejudicial attitudes will adversely affect her children — the already haughty Annette (Audrey Dalton) and younger, more innocent Norman (Harper Carter). On the pretense of a visit back home to her "common" Midwestern roots, Julia books passage for herself and the children on the Titanic, with no intention of returning to Europe. Her husband Richard (Clifton Webb) learns of the "kidnapping" and boards the liner at the last moment, hoping to change Julia's mind — more for appearance's sake and ego fulfillment than any feelings of love and devotion.
Once reunited, the couple clashes in a series of heated arguments, with 20 years of repressed anger and resentment bubbling over and forcing the disclosure of a shocking secret. Meanwhile, Annette abandons her airs and discovers an attraction to Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner), a down-to-earth college tennis player. Other notable passengers on the doomed vessel include Maude Young (Thelma Ritter), a tacky, nouveau riche matron based on the "unsinkable" Molly Brown; George Headley (Richard Basehart), a defrocked (and drunken) Catholic priest; and such historical figures as John Jacob Astor (William Johnstone) and Isador Straus (Roy Gordon).
The Oscar-winning story and screenplay by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch favors honest emotion over melodramatic clichés, and masterfully intertwines the characters' lives. Though the personal drama steals focus from the ship itself and the numerous factors that caused the tragedy, the writers unobtrusively drop in key details and generally adhere to the facts, providing a thorough overview of the night's events. (Inaccuracies are easy to forgive, as historians gathered the bulk of their Titanic knowledge in the years following this film's release.) The special effects, created with a 28-foot model and filmed in the 20th Century-Fox studio tank, are surprisingly realistic, if less extravagant than subsequent Titanic films. Although the movie devotes only its final half-hour to the sinking, Negulesco uses the time efficiently, creating an atmosphere of somber resignation accented by noble, brave acts and devastating farewells.
In this 'Titanic,' though, stellar performances outclass the spectacle. Stanwyck, one of Hollywood's most natural and talented actresses, perfectly balances all of Julia's wide-ranging emotions. Whether she's frustrated, vindictive, calculating, tender, blunt, empathetic, or distraught, Stanwyck strikes just the right note, her tone and manner always appropriate for a woman of acquired stature and questionable breeding. Webb, whose dry wit and withering glances enlivened numerous comedies over the years, shifts those talents to the dramatic arena as the pampered, impudent father who finds strength and meaning in crisis. The moving transformation proves disaster does indeed often bring out the best in men, and his parting scene with Stanwyck presents both actors in the finest light, brimming with a raw intensity and deep emotion that beautifully brings their relationship full circle.
The Titanic disaster has spawned three excellent yet very different films. Comparisons are tempting, but futile. Handicapped by production limitations and a dearth of accessible facts, the 1953 version still does a remarkable job of recreating the tragedy. It may not convey all of Titanic's social themes or accurately depict each detail, but it never abandons the humanity at the center of the story. That's what makes this 'Titanic' unique, memorable, and well worth a fresh look.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 1953 version of 'Titanic' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The BD50 dual-layer disc features a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video transfer and a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
'Titanic' has always been a bit problematic on home video, but this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering from Fox irons out most of the kinks, producing the best possible image and significantly improving upon the 2003 DVD. Gone are all the specks and grit that marred the standard-def release, leaving a clean picture with a medium grain structure. A few shots are rougher than others, marked by either heavier texture or a bit of softness, but overall the transfer is faithful to its source.
'Titanic' was the last big budget movie to be shot before 20th Century-Fox introduced the CinemaScope process, and though a wider screen would have magnified the spectacle, the 1.33:1 ratio nicely complements the film's smaller, more intimate focus. Gray level variance is strong, with deep, rich blacks and bright whites anchoring the scale. (Stanwyck's white fur wrap is especially crisp, as individual hairs are clearly visible and gently sway with the actress' movement.) Shadow delineation is also good, background elements are easy to discern, patterns are rock-solid, and close-ups highlight facial details well. Contrast, however, seems slightly muted; some of the film looks a bit hazy and washed out, but the effect is largely intentional, either to depict the misty ocean air or give the film a slightly antiquated, documentary look. Still, a bit more pop would have made the drama more immediate and stirring.
No crush, noise, or other digital issues hamper this transfer, which doesn't quite rival the recent 'Gentleman's Agreement,' but is still above average. Once again, Fox has taken appropriate care with one of its classics, and fans of 'Titanic' will appreciate the effort.
'Titanic' comes equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track that supplies clean, clear sound, despite a few errant pops. While the film may not be visually innovative, its novel use of sound is both creative and hugely effective. Other than the opening title sequence, 'Titanic' uses no music score, relying instead on natural sounds and shipboard music to augment the action. The liner cutting through the sea, a dining room orchestra, Sunday hymns, ocean breezes, a string quartet — all these realistic elements help draw the viewer into the film and make the action more immediate and engrossing.
A prime example occurs about an hour into the film. What to some might sound like an annoying hum or rumble clouding the lossless track is actually the constant churning of the ship's engines, a fact that hits home when the Titanic scrapes the iceberg and the motors shut down, producing a deafening, eerie silence that jarringly transitions the film into its tragic last act.
Not much fidelity enhances the audio, though the music accompanying the credits possesses a nice stereo feel. Bass frequencies are rather weak, however, with the ship's horns and iceberg collision lacking oomph. Dynamic range is limited, but no distortion afflicts the track, and dialogue is easily understood at all times. This is serviceable audio that honors its source, but unfortunately the limitations of the time prevents it from living up to the historic event depicted on screen.
All the extras from the 2003 DVD have been ported over to this release, with the exception of the absorbing Fox Television documentary, 'Beyond Titanic,' which explores how the media treated the disaster in print, on stage, and in film and TV over the years. Because 'Titanic' resides on a 50GB disc and runs only 98 minutes, such an omission is not due to space considerations, which makes the absence of this excellent film quite puzzling. The rest of the extras, however, are good enough, though a retrospective featurette would have been a welcome addition.
If you're looking for a Titanic tutorial, rent 'A Night to Remember.' If you crave a sweeping love story, pop in Cameron's blockbuster. This 'Titanic' is neither of those. It may not be "king of the world," but by focusing on family relationships and using the disaster as a potent backdrop, it carves its own niche and tells its tragic story with equal power and tenderness. The literate screenplay, unobtrusive direction, and terrific performances by Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb enhance the film's emotional core. Fox rounds out the package with a first-class image transfer that's a nice step up from the previous DVD, solid audio, and a boatload of notable extras, making this classic attractive to both Titanic and film history enthusiasts. Recommended.