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 (1962), 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 given 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.” And Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide proclaimed it a “Cheeky updating of Othello with jazz accompaniment, played a shade too grimly by an excellent cast. An interesting misfire.” So, due to the film’s insignificant box office 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 (purists will hate this 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 to control their emotions under duress but rarely 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. Thanks to Ted Scaife’s fluid cinematography, All Night Long is consistently engaging with moody lighting, voyeuristic details and interesting visual juxtapositions of the main protagonists as they become more estranged in the course of the evening.
Many 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.
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 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 his only dramatic film appearance 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. It doesn’t detract from the escalating tension and actually reinforces the anything-goes-all-night-party vibe.
Another scene stealer is alto sax player Johnny Dankworth, who is more famous in England than he is in the U.S. During his career he 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 also busy film composer (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.
Other Shakespeare plays that have been reimagined and updated for modern tastes include the 1953 musical comedy Kiss Me Kate based on The Taming of the Shrew, the gangster melodrama Joe MacBeth (1955), the sci-fi fantasy Forbidden Planet (1956), which was inspired by The Tempest, and, of course, the award-winning musical West Side Story (1961), another variation on Romeo and Juliet. Patrick McGoohan obviously felt a strong connection to Shakespeare’s tragedy since he agreed to make his directorial film debut a decade later with Catch My Soul (1974), a rock ‘n’ roll musical version of Othello starring Richie Havens, Tony Joe White, Delaney & Bonnie and Billy Joe Royal. For many years, All Night Long was only available as an import DVD/Blu-ray from the distributor Network in the U.K. Then, in January 2011, The Eclipse series from The Criterion Collection released the four-disc set Basil Dearden’s London Underground which includes All Night Long plus Sapphire, The League of Gentlemen and Victim. It remains your best option in the U.S. for viewing and owning a copy of this offbeat gem. It would also be nice if the label would remaster it on Blu-ray. Other websites of interest:
Great article. Saw the movie last year. One of the best films I’ve seen with music (solos, especially) are integrated with the drama. Basil Dearden has done some excellent work, like Victim and The League of Gentlemen. McGoohan does steal the film but, after all, he is “Iago”, one of the greatest villains in Shakespeare or anywhere. Like to see Iago match badness with Richard III.
Yes, McGoohan is excellent and Basil Dearden remains an underrated director. Just saw his 1951 film POOL OF LONDON recently (Kino Lorber released it on Blu-Ray) and it’s an impressive film noir from earlier in his career.