Roy Ward Baker: Director who worked on thrillers, drama, horror and science-fiction but is best known for 'A Night to Remember'
Thursday 14 October 2010
The film and television director Roy Ward Baker directed A Night to Remember, still considered the finest film to deal with the maiden voyage of the Titanic. He also made such notable films as The October Man, The One That Got Away and Quatermass and the Pit. He directed Marilyn Monroe in her first starring dramatic role, in Don't Bother to Knock; Dirk Bogarde and John Mills in the cult western The Singer Not the Song; and Bette Davis as a monstrous one-eyed family despot in The Anniversary.
But his adept handling of diverse genres resulted in an under-rated reputation, his critics accusing him of lacking a personal style. His best films, though, demonstrate his skill at creating claustrophobic tension, and he brings a typically compelling, semi-documentary narrative drive to his meticulously researched account of the Titanic disaster that has made A Night to Remember a classic.
An only child, he was born Roy Horace Ward Baker in London in 1916, and educated at the Lycée Corneille in Rouen, then the City of London School. His father worked in Billingsgate as a fish merchant, and when MGM rebuilt the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square in 1928, he provided goldfish to swim in the fountain installed in the mezzanine foyer. As payment, he was given free tickets to the opening night. Baker, aged 12, was taken by his parents, and after watching Norma Shearer in Trelawney of the Wells, he made up his mind to have a career in the film business.
In 1934 he went to work at Gainsborough studios where he soon graduated from tea boy to second assistant director. He later recalled how much he learnt from watching Robert Stevenson direct Tudor Rose (1936), Carol Reed making Bank Holiday (1937) and most of all from Alfred Hitchcock, with whom he worked on The Lady Vanishes (1938): "During the 10-week shoot in the studio, I reckon I learned as much about film direction as Idid in all the rest of my time at Gainsborough," he recalled. He particularly admired the director's methodical approach, saying, "I have thankfully inherited the Hitchcock method ofpre-planning."
In 1940 Baker left Gainsboroughto join the Army, and was assignedto the Army Kinematograph Service, which made technical training films. "After about six weeks a film cameup and there was nobody to direct it so I suggested myself." How to Clear a Street (1943), was a 10-minute instructional film for the Home Guard, and was followed by other wartime information films.
The thriller writer Eric Ambler, an executive producer for the Army Film Unit, became a close friend during these years. Ambler had already been asked to write and produce a film after the war, and he suggested that Baker direct it. Starring John Mills andJoan Greenwood, The October Man (1947) was a taut, atmospheric thriller, in which an amnesiac (Mills) has to prove himself innocent of a murder he himself believes he may have committed. The principal setting, a gloomy boarding house on the edge of Clapham Common, was evoked with a telling use of detail by Baker, who next filmed The Weaker Sex (1948), which paid tribute to the housewives of the Second World War.
He directed Mills again in the submarine drama Morning Departure (1949), which maintained a gripping tension in its constricted setting. In contrast, Highly Dangerous (1950), written by Ambler, was a fanciful account of an entomologist-turned-spy played by Margaret Lockwood.
The success of Morning Departure prompted 20th Century-Fox to offer Baker a contract, though his first film for the studio, I'll Never Forget You (1951) was made in the UK. Baker then went to Hollywood to direct Don't Bother to Knock (1952) starring Richard Widmark and, in her first major dramatic role, Marilyn Monroe as a psychotic baby-sitter.
Though Baker suffered through the actress's tardiness, he admired her and said in his autobiography, "We worked together for only a couple of months under extreme difficulty, but I adored her and I have no wish to find myself in any way associated with the people who have created such an edifice of fantasy around her."
It was followed by another tense but unconvincing thriller, Night Without Sleep (1952). He was more successful with Inferno (1953), a 3D film in which Robert Ryan played a mining executive who is abandoned in the Mojave desert by his wife and her lover after he breaks his ankle. "There were a number of scenes of the man alone, battling with his predicament, Baker recalled. "Just what I had been looking for."
Baker returned to the UK at the end of 1953 to direct Passage Home (1954), about the disruption caused by a female passenger on a cargo steamer manned by an already mutinous crew, with strong performances of stars Peter Finch and Diane Cilento, then Tiger in the Smoke (1956).
Baker next had two of his greatest hits, both based on real events. The One That Got Away (1957) depicted the remarkable adventures of a German prisoner-of-war whose indomitable escape attempts climax with a chase across snow and ice as he tries to reach the US. Controversially cast with a German star, Hardy Kruger, it was a success for both the actor and Baker, and was followed by A Night to Remember (1958), based on Walter Lord's book about the sinking of the Titanic and starring Kenneth More as Second Officer Lightoller.
"Eric Ambler wrote the script, and the balance that he achieved between so many disparate elements was superb," said Baker, who brought to the film his usual painstaking authenticity. "All the settings were faithful reproductions of the originals."
A long section of the ship's portside of the promenade was constructed, and since little action took part on the starboard side, Baker suggested they shoot those scenes through a mirror. Costumes were specially designed in mirror image, officers saluted with their left hands, and gentlemen exchanged left-handed handshakes. "It worked", Baker said.
The film, which won a Golden Globe, was Baker's greatest hit, and his own favourite. It was followed by his least favourite, The Singer Not the Song (1960), a Western starring Dirk Bogarde and John Mills. It was an over-heated tale of a Mexican bandit (Bogarde, in much-discussed tight-fitting black leather) who becomes infatuated with a Catholic priest (Mills). When he first saw the script, Baker suggested to the producers that they get Luis Buñuel to direct it, but then allowed himself to be persuaded to take it on. "Dirk did not want John Mills to play the priest, and said to me, 'I promise you, if Johnny plays the priest I will make life unbearable for everyone concerned.' Well, he was as good as his word and he succeeded." Mills starred in Baker's next film, one of the first to deal with racism, Flame in the Streets (1961), in which he played a carpenter whose daughter (Sylvia Sims) falls in love with a teacher from the Caribbean (Johnny Sekka).
In 1963 Baker moved to television to direct The Saint, starring Roger Moore. "Roger made the character his own, but on top of that his enthusiasm and drive were infectious." Baker directed 17 Saint episodes, and eight of The Human Jungle, which starred Herbert Lom as a psychiatrist. He made several episodes of The Avengers with Patrick MacNee and Diana Rigg, including his favourite, "The Girl from Auntie" (1966), in which Rigg is kidnapped while dressed as a bird for a fancy dress ball, the kidnapper keeping her locked in a bird-cage. Baker's prolific television work also includes episodes of The Baron, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Persuaders and Minder, plus a mini-series set in Kenya, The Flame Trees of Thika (1981).
He occasionally returned to feature films, generally for Hammer Productions, starting with Quatermass and the Pit (1967), a chilling version of the television series. For this film, Baker was billed for the first time as Roy Ward Baker, as there was a dubbing editor with the same name, though he later regretted his decision when he discovered that later many critics were unaware that he had made any films before his ones for Hammer.
He followed it with The Anniversary (1967), starring Bette Davis, who had been a good friend since he met her in Hollywood. "She was a dedicated Anglophile, and a total professional – she never drove anybody harder than she drove herself. She didn't suffer fools gladly. She was tough. But she was the supreme actress of her generation."
Hammer's The Vampire Lovers (1970) starred Ingrid Pitt as a female vampire whose bite turns women into both vampires and lesbians. "If they wanted porn," Baker said, "they had the wrong cast and director," and his stylish movie received good reviews.
He followed it with Scars of Dracula (1970) and the witty Doctor Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) for Hammer, hissubsequent horror films includingAsylum (1972), The Vault of Horror (1972) and The Masks of Death (1984). In 2000 he wrote an autobiography, The Director's Cut, and two years later he retired.
Roy Horace Ward Baker, film director: born London 19 November 1916; married 1940 Muriel Bradford (divorced 1944), 1948 Joan Dixon, (divorced 1987, one son); died London 5 October 2010.
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