O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”
–Othello by William Shakespeare
In Basil Dearden’s 1962 film All Night Long, the writers shift Shakespeare’s Othello from 16th century Venice to 1960s London. Set in the black and white world of jazz clubs and smoky back rooms, All Night Long has a cool cocktail party vibe and a fantastic score. It also has a vicious plot full of innuendo, plotting, and lies. The writers obviously used Othello as a guide, but they may also have watched All About Eve once or twice.
Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) hosts a party at his London brownstone. It’s a surprise anniversary party for friends Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his wife, Delia Lane (Marti Stevens). The couple and their guests, the best jazz musicians in London, gather to celebrate and listen to each other jam. As the group of friends talk and toast, a note of suspicion drifts into the scene. Johnnie Cousin (Patrick McGoohan), the drummer for Rex’s band, wants to step out on his own. He also has a thing for Rex’s wife, Delia. Tired of playing in someone else’s band, Johnny wants his own group even if sabotaging Rex is the only way to get it.
Does this sound familiar? In All About Eve, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) wanted the lead role promised to Margot Channing (Bette Davis) in an upcoming play. Eve also wanted Margot’s director boyfriend, Bill (Gary Merrill) for herself. A little backstabbing here and there and Eve almost got everything she wanted. Watching All Night Long, I could almost picture Karen (Celeste Holm) asking Eve if all this heartbreak and treachery was worth it just for a part in a play. Eve answers, “I’d do much more for a part that good.” Eve and Johnnie Cousin would get along great.
The allusions to Othello are more obvious. Johnnie Cousin as Iago plants the seeds of jealousy and mistrust in Rex (Othello) by implying that Delia (Desdemona) is cheating with Cass (Cassio). Instead of Iago planting Desdemona’s handkerchief on Cassio, as in Shakespeare’s play, Johnnie plants Delia’s cigarette case on Cass which enflames Rex’s jealousy and sends him over the edge.
Slowly and subtly, Johnnie plants a word here, a rumor there, until Rex doubts the loyalty of his road manager, Cass (Keith Mitchell) and even his wife. To add fuel to the fire, Delia and Cass have been meeting secretly while the band tours to rehearse a song they’ll perform at the party as a gift for Rex. Hearing about these clandestine, but innocent meetings along with Johnnie’s other lies convinces Rex that he’s being duped. Rex lashes out and what started as a happy occasion ends in violence.
Basil Dearden directed controversial films in the 1950s and 60s. He started with Sapphire in 1959 which concerns the racially-motivated murder of a young girl. Dearden went on to make the terrific film Victim in 1961. In Victim, Dirk Bogarde plays a successful barrister who stands up to a ring of criminals blackmailing homosexuals. Both films deal frankly with taboo subjects while avoiding stereotypes. The subjects are people with flaws who make mistakes and Dearden treats them fairly. In All Night Long, a few of the musicians smoke pot and there are references to drug rehabilitation and psychotherapy. Most mainstream, non-exploitation films of the early 60s don’t refer to anything like that. Then there’s the obviously controversial mixed marriage and mixed romance in All Night Long. Delia is white and Rex, black. Cass is white and his love, Benny (María Velasco) is black. Aside from the Othello connection, the big deal in this film is that there is no big deal. The romances simply exist. No one calls attention to them. Five years later in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the subject of mixed marriage is the whole film. Dearden tackled important issues well before most of his colleagues.
Any discussion of All Night Long must mention Philip Green’s music. It’s glorious. Even if you think Coltrane is how we transport briquets, you’ll probably enjoy this score. Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, and other renowned jazz musicians play pick-up sets throughout the film. They play themselves and their instruments as both an accompaniment and an accent to the story. During tense scenes, the incessant drum beat takes a toll on the ones being squeezed and the device works. It comes off as natural. I mean, it’s hard to complain about a film that begins with Charles Mingus casually playing bass alone on stage while he waits for the party to start.
Here’s where I wax rhapsodic about one of my favorite character actors. Patrick McGoohan, most famous for his lead role in the enigmatic science fiction/spy series The Prisoner also starred in Ice Station Zebra and appeared in and directed a few of the best episodes of Columbo. In All Night Long, McGoohan even says his trademark, “Be seeing you.” McGoohan has the best part in All Night Long. His smug, obsequious Johnnie Cousin can’t wait to drop his little rumor bombs and walk away, returning in time to witness the explosions and offer to help. His intricate plan has so many twists, you can see Johnnie’s wheels turning every time another character speaks.
Johnnie has set the machinations in place, but he needs to think on his feet too. McGoohan looks great in this film. He even learned to play the drums to appear more natural in the part. As for the rest of the cast, Richard Attenborough did lovely work in the 1960s and this part, although small, makes a difference. Attenborough’s kindness highlights McGoohan’s cruelty. Betsy Blair is all restraint as McGoohan’s sweet, long-suffering wife. Paul Harris and Marti Stevens make believable lovers. Warm and honey-voiced, Stevens convinces as the object of desire for her talent as well as herself. Her rendition of All Night Long is lovely and full of emotion.
All Night Long takes risks. A cast full of jazz stalwarts and solid character actors, a plot written by Shakespeare and updated by Nel King and Paul Jarrico, and a catchy jazz soundtrack make for an unusual and entertaining film.
Note: Paul Jarrico appears in the credits as Peter Achilles. Jarrico was blacklisted by HUAC and wrote under different pseudonyms for years after.
This piece appeared in a slightly different form in Brattle Film Notes, the blog for the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.