Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
In sharp contrast to the veritable torrent of Hamlet adaptations, it’s somewhat surprising that a Shakespeare tragedy as popular as Othello has so few major film versions. The first is Orson Welles’s 1952 adaptation, featuring the man himself in both the title role and the director’s chair. The most recent, oddly enough, at least as far as explicit-made-for-film versions, is 2001’s O, a modern update that you may or may not consider a true film adaptation of the play. Sure, there are a ton of films that fall in the middle ground. Do filmed theatrical productions count? Do modern updates like O count, and if so, do we consider films that have an even more tenuous link to the play?
Why do we care? might be the actual question on your tongue right now, but if you’ve ever enjoyed Shakespeare at all you’re probably aware of the fact that no two adaptations of the same play are ever the same. How has Othello changed from the first film adaptation to the most recent version? Is there anything that remained from the Welles version, working its way in to the Shakespeare tale such that O becomes an adaptation of both? If this is interesting to you, then this article will explore all of that; if you’re not interested, this article will still explore all of that.
Do you like jazz? Do you like Shakespeare’s Othello? Do you like to smoke marijuana? Do you want to plead the fifth on that last one in case your mom overhears? Hi Mom!
Continuing our rundown of Richard Attenborough films in the wake of his passing (which really consists of searching “Richard Attenborough” on Netflix and watching whatever comes up), the jazz-driven All Night Long ended up being a hidden gem of sorts. The Netflix synopsis describes it as a retelling of Othello, which it certainly is, but like any great remake or adaptation the majority of All Night Long is highly original.
On one level the movie is really just a vehicle for jazz greats Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, Ray Dempsey, and Charles Mingus. Guys like Mingus don’t get nearly enough screentime, but it’s still cool to see them in this context and to have the video of them at all. Brubeck, on the other hand, gets an entire song right smack in the middle of the film, which he seems to relish. His presence and obvious passion for jazz also lend a lot to the main story.
And the main story is actually quite well executed. Attenborough is slightly tangential as the rich host of the London-set all-night session; Paul Harris is the Othello figure and bandleader Aurelius Rex; Marti Stevens, who looks like a zombie when she sings, is the Desdemona character and object of everyone’s attention; Keith Michell is great as saxophonist and wrong-guy-at-the-wrong-time Cass Michaels.
But Patrick McGoohan as Iago figure Johnny Cousin is the real treat here, and he’s what elevates the film from a mere parade of jazz cameos to an actual story. Johnny Cousin, unlike Iago, has a clear motive for destroying the relationship between Rex and Marti Stevens’s Delia, as doing so will allow Delia to join his band instead. His methods – really only seen by the audience, as they involve a deception on nearly everyone else at the session – are brutal and extremely low. Cousin is a drummer, and a drummer with a massive ego to boot – his drums say “Johnny Cousin” in flowing script on the front of them – and McGoohan plays the music scenes nearly flawlessly. He sweats and struggles over the snare and the high hat and the crash and the bass drum, but it’s clear to the audience that the objects in the room he’s really working on are the people.
And at the end of All Night Long, when it’s very obvious not only to the viewer but even to the partygoers that something fishy is afoot, Cousin has nothing to say for himself and just accepts that he has run his game into the ground. His ploy started with a clear motive, yes, but it ended with a different one – not one of gain or desire, but one of straight evil. After everyone has left him to his shame, his wife still approaches him with his coat to leave, telling him that she loves him, you see? “I don’t see,” he says. “I don’t love anyone. Not even Johnny.” This plays fantastically off of the underscores on his ego from earlier, and McGoohan knocks it out of the park.