Roy Ward Baker, 93

British director of 'A Night to Remember'

"A Night to Remember," Baker's dramatization of the Titanic sinking, was an unpretentious look at the events leading up to the tragedy.
"A Night to Remember," Baker's dramatization of the Titanic sinking, was an unpretentious look at the events leading up to the tragedy. (Sean Smith)

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By Adam Bernstein
Friday, October 8, 2010

Roy Ward Baker, a British film director who brought an understated precision to his craft and whose credits included the thriller "Don't Bother to Knock" starring Marilyn Monroe as a deranged babysitter and the celebrated Titanic melodrama "A Night to Remember," died Oct. 5 at a hospital in London.

He was 93. His son Nicholas, speaking with the Associated Press, did not disclose a cause of death.

Mr. Baker's most powerful films were as unflashy and self-effacing as the director himself. This efficient approach led him to a successful transition to television work in the 1960s, notably directing episodes of "The Avengers" and "The Saint."

He later became a stalwart, intermittently inspired helmer of British horror films, including the lesbian-themed "The Vampire Lovers" (1970) and "Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde" (1972) which introduced a sex-change angle to the venerable Robert Louis Stevenson shocker.

A New York Times movie critic, A.H. Weiler, found "The Vampire Lovers," which starred the voluptuous Ingrid Pitt, "a departure from the hackneyed bloody norm . . . professionally directed, opulently staged and sexy to boot."

Mr. Baker had entered the British film industry as a teenager, serving as a tea boy, fetching pipes and running errands. By the late 1930s, he worked himself up to "assistant assistant" to such directors as Alfred Hitchcock on "The Lady Vanishes" and Carol Reed on "Night Train to Munich."

In short, he knew how to get things done for demanding directors. This skill served him well in the British army during World War II, when he made documentaries and educational films for troops on short notice and tight budgets.

His work impressed novelist and screenwriter Eric Ambler, who was then one of his military superiors. After the war, Ambler asked Mr. Baker to direct "The October Man" (1947), which was based on one of the author's scripts and starred John Mills as a murder suspect.

Mr. Baker and Ambler collaborated on "A Night to Remember" (1958), based on Walter Lord's fastidiously researched book about the passenger ship and its demise in the icy North Atlantic during its maiden voyage.

The story of the Titanic, a supposedly "unsinkable" vessel that sunk in 1912 after hitting an iceberg, had long intrigued filmmakers.

Where other directors (Jean Negulesco in 1953, James Cameron in 1997) highlighted romance and intrigue among passengers, Mr. Baker's version was a crisp, unpretentious look at the events leading to the tragedy. Laurence Naismith played the captain of the ship and Kenneth More one of his key officers.

In the New York Times, film critic Bosley Crowther called "A Night to Remember" "tense, exciting and supremely awesome" and "as fine and convincing an enactment as anyone could wish - or expect."


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