Sunday, November 04, 2007


Though this rarely-seen British film falls short of classic status, it is a one-of-a-kind oddity which is very entertaining and well worth seeking out. Essentially, it's a re-tooling of Shakespeare's Othello in a jazz setting. The entire film takes place on a single set, the gorgeous multi-tiered loft apartment of rich jazz enthusiast Richard Attenborough, in almost real time, during a anniversary party being thrown for bandleader Paul Harris (the Othello character) and his wife Marti Stevens, who has given up her singing career at Harris's request. The two seem happy, but Harris's drummer, Patrick McGoohan (the Iago character), wants to break out in a band of his own and, by claiming he'll have Stevens as his singer, has gotten the promise of financial backing from Attenborough and career backing from a powerful agent. The problem is that Stevens doesn't really want to commit, so, assuming that she will commit if Harris is out the way, McGoohan spends the evening manipulating events so that Harris will think that Stevens is having an affair with Harris's good friend and road manager Keith Michell (Cass/Cassio). If you know Othello, you know what's coming, and half the fun is seeing how the predictable plot plays out--marijuana cigarettes and a strategically placed tape recorder are two crucial elements--though things don't end quite as tragically here as in Shakespeare.

The black and white film is beautifully shot (directed by Basil Dearden): the set is fabulous, creating a unique atmosphere in much the way that Rick's Cafe does in CASABLANCA, light and shadow are used very well, and the camera keeps moving, though not distractingly so. Jazz musicians Charlie Mingus, Dave Brubeck, and John Dankworth have cameo roles, and get a chance to play a couple of full numbers. Actingwise, McGoohan and Attenborough are excellent (and if McGoohan doesn't do his own drumming, he does a damn fine job of faking it), but the rest of the cast leaves something to be desired. Harris is mostly quiet and inscrutable, which is fine, but he never really engages the viewer. Likewise, Stevens, who sounds a lot like Marlene Dietrich (and according to IMDb was a Dietrich protege) doesn't have much appeal. Betsy Blair is OK as McGoohan's mousy wife (Emily/Emilia) who has little to do until the climax. The film aired on the Encore Love Stories channel, and I never would have thought to watch it except for a write-up in Tivoplex, a weekly online column at Boxoffice Prophets which alerts readers to interesting films coming up during the week on cable. It should have been letterboxed and wasn't (I'd watch the Encore channels a lot more if they did show widescreen movies in a widescreen format), but the shots are composed such that the trimming of the image didn't hurt too much. There is a region 2 DVD, but a region 1 disc would be most welcome and might help this film reach the wider audience it deserves.

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