THE DVD SHELF: "Brief Encounter," "Vanya on 42nd Street," "A Night to Remember," Fred Astaire, "Car 54"

By Steven Suskin
22 Apr 2012

Cover art for "A Night to Remember"
Given the current centennial of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, Criterion also brings us a high-definition restoration of the 1958 thriller A Night to Remember. Not a thriller, exactly, because we all know that this here ship is gonna hit an iceberg. But Roy Ward Baker's film — based on Walter Lord's nonfiction bestseller, and helped along by Eric Ambler's screenplay — is altogether gripping. A fine and engrossing film, it is also somewhat outdated; little did they know in 1958 that the lost Titanic would be found, photographed, explored and exploited. But that takes nothing from "A Night to Remember" as a piece of filmmaking. This telling of the tale followed close on the heels of Jean Negulesco's 1953 "Titanic," starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck; Baker's version would be more or less wiped out of the public memory by James Cameron's 1997 superspectacular. But no matter; "A Night to Remember" carefully recreates that deceptively still April eve — with more authenticity than seen elsewhere — and makes for topnotch viewing. The film looks great in glorious black and white, and benefits from the score by William Alwyn. Special features include the 1993 documentary "The Making of A Night to Remember," the 2006 BBC documentary "The Iceberg That Sank the Titanic," and an archival interview with Eva Hart, a steerage passenger on the fateful voyage.


Cover art for "Vanya on 42nd Street"

Starting in 1989, director Andre Gregory assembled a friendly group of actors — as schedules permitted — to read Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, using a newly-published adaptation by David Mamet. Just for fun, as an acting exercise, in the derelict old Victory Theatre on seedy 42nd Street (now the New Victory). This went on for years, with small audiences of friends being invited to watch. In 1994, Gregory and the Vanya-in-residence Wallace Shawn — who were immortalized in the 1981 feature "My Dinner with Andre" — joined with Louis Malle, director of "My Dinner," to film their Vanya on 42nd Street [Criterion].

What seems to be a modern-dress rehearsal of Vanya is really something more; the actors rehearsing Vanya are soon transported, through the magic of Mr. Gregory and their collective acting skills, into the characters themselves. The performances are highly watchable, led by the Vanya of Wallace Shawn, the Astrov of Larry Pine, the Yelena of Julianne Moore, and the Serebryakov of George Gaynes. Also on hand, as the nanny Marina, is 89-year old Phoebe Brand, a Group Theatre alumni who was blacklisted along with husband Morris Carnovsky.

The other star of the film, it might be said, is the New Amsterdam Theatre. Or perhaps we should call it the Old Amsterdam, in the state it was back before Disney and their Lion King spruced it up and dusted it off (and then some). Back in 1994, the house is severely distressed and nearly in ruins — although presumably in better shape for filming than the Victory. The action is played in what had been the front section of the orchestra, with seats removed; the stage at that point was unstable. The all-but-haunted house, with that grapes-and-vine decorative motif, makes an effective stand-in for Serebryakov's country estate. (Take-out cardboard coffee cups — with the familiar blue & white Greek design — are scattered along the walls and ledges, somehow enhancing the setting.)

You really do get a sense of Chekhov's 19th-century characters living and breathing, just off Times Square. The film opens, for those interested in such things, with a 42nd Street street scene — and it is authentic, for sure. That's what it looked like, not so long ago. The recessed hot dog stand at which Shawn is discovered, munching a knish, was part of the outdoor entrance lobby of the old Selwyn Theatre office building. The outer lobby is gone, but the Selwyn survives as the Roundabout's American Airlines.

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