Friday, October 8, 2010

Roy Ward Baker Passes at 93

Roy Ward Baker, who directed such films as Don't Bother to Knock (1952), A Night to Remember (1958), and Quatermass and the Pit (1967), passed at the age of 93 on Wednesday.

Roy Baker was born 19 December, 1916 in London. He would add his mother's married name, Ward, to his name later in his directorial career.

Mr. Baker was still very young when he talked his way into a job with Gainsborough Pictures. He started his career as a runner in 1934 on the movie Chu Chin Chow. By 1936 he was working as an assistant director Windbag the Sailor. He would serve as an assistant director on Oh, Mr. Porter (1937) and the Hitchcock classic The Lady Vanishes (1938). On the films A Girl Must Live (1939) and Night Train to Munich (1940), he was a second unit director. During World War II he worked with the British Army Kinematograph Unit, where his superior officer was novelist Eric Ambler. The two would later collaborate on an adaptation of Ambler's novel The October Man and it was Mr. Ambler who wrote the screenplay for A Night to Remember.

Upon World War II's end Roy Baker became a full fledge director, making his debut with the film Read All About It in 1945. He would do onto direct The October Man (1947), The Weaker Sex (1948), Paper Orchid (1948), Morning Departure (1950), Highly Dangerous (1950), and The House in the Square (1951). It would be Morning Departure, starring Sir John Mills, which would draw the attention of Darryl Zanuck, who hired him for three years at 20th Century Fox.

Mr. Baker's first film for Fox was the thriller Don't Bother to Knock (1952), starring Marilyn Monroe. It was followed by the films noir Night without Sleep (1952) and Inferno (1953). He then returned to the United Kingdom where he directed such films as Passage Home (1956), Tiger in the Smoke (1956), and The One That Got Away (1957). It was in 1958 that a film was released that would be the highlight of his career. It was in 1958 that a one of the highlights of his career. Eric Ambler wrote the sceenplay and Roy Baker directed an adaptation of Walter Lord's book on the Titanic's ill fated voyage, a movie entitled A Night to Remember. The movie was as historically accurate as possible at the time (at that point we did not know the ship had broken in two) and avoided fictional romance for a fairly faithful retelling of the actual events aboard the ship. It was superior not only in its historical accuracy, but quite simply as a film to the wildly overrated Titanic (1997) directed by James Cameron many years later.

While A Night to Remember received critical accolades and did well at the box office, it did not give Mr. Baker better assignments as a director. The next few years he directed such films as Flame in the Streets (1961), The Valiant (1963), and Two Left Feet (1963). It was in 1963 that he would begin directing television shows, starting off with episodes of Zero One. The next several years he directed episodes of such shows as The Human Jungle, Gideon's Way, The Baron, The Avengers, Department S, The Champions, and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). The show with which he was most closely connected was perhaps The Saint, for which he directed 18 episodes alone.

In 1967 Mr. Baker would return to film with another highlight of his career and the first film upon which he used the name "Roy Ward Baker." Quatermass and the Pit was Hammer Films' adaptation of the popular British serial, and arguably one of the best science fiction movies they ever made. It was also one of the best horror movies ever made and possibly Mr. Baker's best film. He would direct more movies for Hammer, including the space Western Moon Zero Two, The Vampire Lovers (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970), and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971). He would then go to work for rival Amicus Productions, directing the horror portmanteau films Asylum (1972) and Vault of Horror (1973--based on the E.C. Comics titles), and the Gothic horror film And Now the Screaming Starts (1973). He would finish out the Seventies directing the films Mission: Monte Carlo (1973), the much maligned Hammer/Shaw Brothers co-production Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974), and one last Amicus horror portmanteau film, The Monster Club (1980). He continued to direct television shows, including The Persuaders, Jason King, The Protectors, and Return of The Saint.

From the Eighties into the early Nineties Roy Ward Baker worked exclusively in television. He directed episodes of  The Flame Trees of Thika, Q.E.D., Fairly Secret Army, Minder, Saracen, and The Good Guys. He also directed the telefilm Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death.

Roy Ward Baker has been described as a technically proficient director, but not a particularly artistic one. I have to disagree with this. In his best films, such as Don't Bother to Knock, A Night to Remember, and Quatermass and the Pit, Mr. Baker utilised a naturalistic, almost documentary like directorial style that was particularly effective not only in heightening realism, but in increasing suspense. At his best, Mr. Baker was capable of producing classics (I would classify all three of the films cited above as such). At his worst Mr. Baker made good, entertaining  films. Indeed, I have trouble of thinking of any truly bad film he ever directed. Some might cite Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, but I must disagree with them. It is actually a good movie, but one saddled with a reputation no doubt created by the wretched American release The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula, in which several minutes were edited (I would say "butchered") from the film. No, Roy Ward Baker is a director whose career is badly in need of reappraisal. He was a talented director with a naturalistic style that made some very fine films.

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