OTHELLO Plays the Blues, BeBop Style

Attempts to bring Shakespeare to the masses can be ill-advised and most film adaptations of the Bard’s work are either faithful copies of the stage plays such as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) and Richard III (1955) that preserve the language of the original or creative interpretations that either result in a broader appeal (Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, 1996) or earn the wrath of the Shakespeare purists without appealing to anyone else. ALL NIGHT LONG (1961), which updates Othello to London’s West End in the early sixties and transforms the Moor of Venice into a renowned jazz pianist known as Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris), falls into the latter category.   Most British film critics at the time were unkind, dismissing the film as an unnecessary attempt to place Othello in a modern context with the gimmick of a jazz jam session background. Even jazz aficionados found fault with the film, complaining about the limited screen time afforded their heroes. David Meeker in his film reference work, Jazz in the Movies, called the film “a ludicrous adaptation of Othello and jazz jamboree that falls flat on both counts.” So, due to the film’s insignificant boxoffice performance in England, ALL NIGHT LONG had very spotty distribution in the U.S. and has rarely been heard from since. But I’m hear to tell you that EVERYONE IS WRONG! ALL NIGHT LONG is a highly entertaining original. You don’t have to be familiar with Othello or even know who Shakespeare is to enjoy it. Nor do you have to be a jazz buff either. But if you are a jazz lover, you’ll have a greater appreciation for this movie now and you’ll flip when you see who is in it. Patrick McGoogan fans are also encouraged to take a break from their megaset DVD collections of “The Prisoner” and “Secret Agent” to check out their favorite cult actor playing a cunning, maniacal jazz drummer named Johnnie Cousin (a stand-in for the play’s Iago).

Here’s a brief overview of the plot, all of which takes place in a hip loft space which looks more like a posh jazz club and has stunning riverside views of London. Rodney Hamilton, a popular club owner and wealthy jazz patron, is throwing a surprise anniversary party for Black jazz pianist Aurelius Rex and his Caucasian wife Delia (Marti Stevens, reputedly a protege of Marlene Dietrich) who are celebrating one year of marriage. Delia gave up an acclaimed singing career as a jazz vocalist when she married Aurelius but Johnnie Cousin, the drummer in Rex’s band, tries to coax her back into the limelight. Obsessed with starting his own band and breaking away from the more famous Rex, he knows hiring Delia as his vocalist is the key to his success. She refuses, of course, setting the stage for a night long blowout in which Johnnie slithers around trying to manipulate the evening to his advantage. He encourages Cass Michaels (Keith Michell), sax player and business manager for Rex, to smoke dope even though he’s in rehab – the outcome is disastrous. He also drops hints and encourages rumors about Delia having an ongoing affair with Cass – they ARE close friends, after all, and openly affectionate with each other so Johnnie gets busy encouraging everyone’s worst suspicions with doctored tape recordings of private conversations and bait and switch tactics. It all builds to a violent confrontation in which Rex, slowly driven mad with jealousy over his wife’s supposed infidelity, attacks her. But unlike Shakespeare’s Othello, it doesn’t end as you’d expect (the purists will hate that part).

There is much to applaud in this re-thinking of Othello but first, kudos are in order for director Basil Dearden and screenwriters Nel King and Paul Jarrico (who was blacklisted at the time and is listed in the credits as Peter Achilles here). Dearden, a former stage director, had toiled in the British B-movie industry for years before earning acclaim in 1959 for the crime drama Sapphire. It was followed by strong critical notices for the caper thriller, The League of Gentleman (1960), and the controversial adult drama Victim (1961), one of the first English films to address homosexuality and gay persecution. ALL NIGHT LONG was the film Dearden made right after Victim and it has the same taut pacing and claustrophobic atmosphere where conflicted characters try not to lose control of their emotions under duress but usually don’t succeed. What’s most interesting of all is that race is rarely addressed as an issue here or even acknowledged in a direct way which might have been more typical in jazz circles but was completely unexpected in the pre-Civil Rights Act period. And even though most of the entire film takes place in Hamilton’s loft except for some exterior street scenes, the movie never feels static or like a filmed stage play. Ted Scaife’s fluid cinematography keeps things moving constantly with interesting juxtapositions of the main protagonists as they become more estranged in the course of the evening.

Maria Velasco (on left) & Betsy Blair in ALL NIGHT LONG

Many of you may be surprised to see Richard Attenborough in full Beat Daddy mode as super cool Rodney Hamilton – yes, I said Richard Attenborough, stodgy director of Gandhi and Cry Freedom. He’s quite amusing here as a jazz scene mover and shaker but Keith Michell is equally good as the fun-loving but equally volatile Cass. Betsy Blair also turns up in a supporting role as a sad, pathetic jazz groupie who tricked McGoohan’s Johnnie Cousin into a marriage license when he was drunk (and he’s supposed to be the cunning one?).

As for our key players, Paul Harris’s Othello stand-in and Marti Stevens’ take on Shakespeare’s Desdemona are engaging, sympathetic and make a smashing couple. Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by McGoohan’s Iago wannabe, who turns in such a ferocious performance that you can almost see the malice oozing out of every pore. McGoohan had played villains before (Hell Drivers, 1958) and would again in such films as Silver Streak (1976) but his Johnnie Cousin in ALL NIGHT LONG might be his best personification of evil. He’s also gets his own spotlight drum solo at the end (that’s really him playing)….which is the perfect lead in to the film’s music score and guest musicians.

Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus

If nothing else, ALL NIGHT LONG now stands as a remarkable time capsule and visual document of some of the biggest names in jazz in 1962. Legendary bass player Charles Mingus appears in the opening scene, warming up for the party ahead and making casual conversation with Attenborough. Ok, so it’s obvious he’s not a real actor but it’s MINGUS for christsake and this is the only fiction film he’s ever appeared in to my knowledge. While he never gets his own solo, you do get to hear snatches of the band playing his composition “Peggy’s Blue Skylight.” Dave Brubeck, however, does get his own piano solo (Can anyone identify this tune?), and remarkably, director Dearden allows him to play it in its entirety without cutting away from it to return to the main storyline. It doesn’t detract from the escalating tension and actually reinforces the anything goes all night party vibe.

Dave Brubeck in ALL NIGHT LONG

Dave Brubeck in ALL NIGHT LONG

Another scene stealer is alto sax player Johnny Dankworth who is more famous in England than he is in the U.S., even though he has composed numerous film soundtracks (The Servant, Darling, Modesty Blaise) and recorded many albums with his wife, vocalist Cleo Laine (who dubs Marti Stevens in her solo number “I Never Knew”).

Johnny Scott gets a neat spotlight with his composition “Scott-Free”. Scott, who plays both alto sax and flute, is also a noted composer and bandleader – in the sixties he led two groups, The Johnny Scott Quintet and The Johnny Scott Trio. Like Dankworth, he was a busy film composer too (over 100 movie soundtracks!) and is the principal saxophonist on the Goldfinger soundtrack by John Barry.

Most of the musical numbers performed in ALL NIGHT LONG were composed by Philip Green and include “Dedication to Johnny Hodges,” Frenzy,” “Muy Rapido,” “Skin Fever”, “The Chase” and “Wingate’s Spot,” many of which are sampled in the course of the film. Green is the official composer of the score and almost rivals Johnny Scott in the number of movie soundtracks composed during his lifetime – 90! There are also bits and pieces of Duke Ellington’s “Sweet Lorraine” and “In a Sentimental Mood” heard in the course of thIS long day’s journey into night.

ALL NIGHT LONG, which is rarely shown in the U.S. at all, if ever, and is not available in any format (except in England as a PAL DVD), will be featured on TCM’s Underground franchise on December 5th at 2 a.m. ET. I hope you tune in and enjoy this unfairly maligned riff on a Shakespearean theme and… if you don’t, then please keep your comments to yourself.  Now, would someone please release JOE MACBETH (1955) starring Paul Douglas and Ruth Roman on DVD?

14 Responses OTHELLO Plays the Blues, BeBop Style
Posted By moirafinnie : November 3, 2008 4:37 pm

I can’t believe that others haven’t chimed in with their comments on this excellent, highly entertaining adaptation of Othello to the jazz milieu and the record industry. While my enjoyment of the movie isn’t necessarily keyed to the Shakespearean link, it is a lot of fun due to the tableau of skilled “hipsters” such as Patrick McGoohan, Richard Attenborough, and Keith Michell slouching through this movie. I actually didn’t recognize Betsy Blair until the last scene, and thought that Paul Harris was wonderful as the conflicted musician involved in the interracial romance.

Btw, I loved the modern style of the loft where the action took place in this film, and found Attenborough‘s nerdy but hip glasses to be a nice touch.

While Richard Attenborough may now seem a cheerfully “stodgy” figure, a singular example of his highly developed acting skill show him to be anything but this when on January 6th, 2009, TCM at 8pm ET will be broadcasting one of his best films, Brighton Rock (1947). Based on Graham Greene‘s fine novel about the underworld, the story centers on Attenborough‘s brilliant and chilling portrayal of a hoodlum. This bad guy has a nagging suspicion that he may have overlooked a detail in his quest to neatly order his criminal world–a realization that becomes more pronounced as he experiences a downswing in his fortunes.

And YES, where is Joe MacBeth (1955)? I love anything with Paul Douglas and the inimitable Sid James as Banky has to be seen to be believed.

Posted By moirafinnie : November 3, 2008 4:37 pm

I can’t believe that others haven’t chimed in with their comments on this excellent, highly entertaining adaptation of Othello to the jazz milieu and the record industry. While my enjoyment of the movie isn’t necessarily keyed to the Shakespearean link, it is a lot of fun due to the tableau of skilled “hipsters” such as Patrick McGoohan, Richard Attenborough, and Keith Michell slouching through this movie. I actually didn’t recognize Betsy Blair until the last scene, and thought that Paul Harris was wonderful as the conflicted musician involved in the interracial romance.

Btw, I loved the modern style of the loft where the action took place in this film, and found Attenborough‘s nerdy but hip glasses to be a nice touch.

While Richard Attenborough may now seem a cheerfully “stodgy” figure, a singular example of his highly developed acting skill show him to be anything but this when on January 6th, 2009, TCM at 8pm ET will be broadcasting one of his best films, Brighton Rock (1947). Based on Graham Greene‘s fine novel about the underworld, the story centers on Attenborough‘s brilliant and chilling portrayal of a hoodlum. This bad guy has a nagging suspicion that he may have overlooked a detail in his quest to neatly order his criminal world–a realization that becomes more pronounced as he experiences a downswing in his fortunes.

And YES, where is Joe MacBeth (1955)? I love anything with Paul Douglas and the inimitable Sid James as Banky has to be seen to be believed.

Posted By Colleen : November 3, 2008 5:36 pm

Looking forward to seeing this film. Betsy Blair wrote a little about it in her wonderful book The Memory Of All That.

Posted By Colleen : November 3, 2008 5:36 pm

Looking forward to seeing this film. Betsy Blair wrote a little about it in her wonderful book The Memory Of All That.

Posted By Tony Dayoub : November 4, 2008 9:00 am

Now you’ve motivated me to dredge it up from my DVR graveyard, where it’s been languishing for a little while. I’ll let you know what I think After I see it.

Posted By Tony Dayoub : November 4, 2008 9:00 am

Now you’ve motivated me to dredge it up from my DVR graveyard, where it’s been languishing for a little while. I’ll let you know what I think After I see it.

Posted By Medusa : November 4, 2008 12:26 pm

Thanks for the heads-up on this one on TCM! I’ve never seen it but what an intriguing concept and great cast! I’m not going to miss it!

Posted By Medusa : November 4, 2008 12:26 pm

Thanks for the heads-up on this one on TCM! I’ve never seen it but what an intriguing concept and great cast! I’m not going to miss it!

Posted By Karin : December 8, 2008 11:50 am

Coincidentally I just started looking online to purchase this movie for a friend. The Berkeley Pacific Film Archive had shown it and other great Jazz films last winter. My travels to France, so the PAL format is not an insurmountable obstacle. My question is about the 2007 Network release I see available on Amazon UK versus the German titled release I can order thru DaaVeeDee in NJ. Is there a difference? Which one should I get? Any tips would be appreciated.

Posted By Karin : December 8, 2008 11:50 am

Coincidentally I just started looking online to purchase this movie for a friend. The Berkeley Pacific Film Archive had shown it and other great Jazz films last winter. My travels to France, so the PAL format is not an insurmountable obstacle. My question is about the 2007 Network release I see available on Amazon UK versus the German titled release I can order thru DaaVeeDee in NJ. Is there a difference? Which one should I get? Any tips would be appreciated.

Posted By jeff : December 8, 2008 12:31 pm

Karin.

I have only viewed the UK version but it is an excellent transfer. The only extra it has is a trailer for the film.

Posted By jeff : December 8, 2008 12:31 pm

Karin.

I have only viewed the UK version but it is an excellent transfer. The only extra it has is a trailer for the film.

Posted By sensei48 : November 5, 2009 2:55 am

Fine and perceptive article and review. The movie is showing as I type this on the “This” over-the-air network of all films – shown as channel 5.2 in Los Angeles as an adjunct to main channel 5.1. It may well play in the near future on similar channels on other local stations in the U.S.

Posted By sensei48 : November 5, 2009 2:55 am

Fine and perceptive article and review. The movie is showing as I type this on the “This” over-the-air network of all films – shown as channel 5.2 in Los Angeles as an adjunct to main channel 5.1. It may well play in the near future on similar channels on other local stations in the U.S.

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