I watched this film on Sunday night with Mum and Dad. It is famous above all for its jazz soundtrack - and this is why Dad in particular wanted to see it. The story takes place over the course of a single evening, at a party held to celebrate the first wedding anniversary of a jazz musician and his wife. This means that jazz is integral to the whole story. Throughout the film, a series of different jazz musicians are jamming with each other on a stage while everyone else sits around listening and chatting and drinking cocktails - and there are several scenes which simply focus entirely on the music, letting the plot ride out for a while as the musicians play. In fact, a major part of the film's appeal (certainly to my Dad) is that the musicians at its centre aren't just actors – they are professional jazz musicians of the time, playing for real as part of the film. The sound-track is considered a must-have for all 'serious' jazz fans, and Dad has had a copy of it pretty much ever since it came out. It clearly is very good, as well – I can see why he's always liked it so much.
There's another whole side to the film besides the jazz, though. Around it is woven a story about the jazz musician, his wife and their supposed friend, which is essentially Othello reworked for a modern setting. Each of the main characters from Shakespeare's play is readily identifiable, and in several cases the names of the re-invented characters contain direct references to the originals. So Aurelius Rex, the black jazz musician, is Othello; Delia Lane, his white jazz-singer wife whom he can't bear to let out of his sight is Desdemona; Johnny Cousin, himself a jazz drummer who wants Delia to sing in a new band he's forming, is Iago; Emily Cousin is Iago's wife, Emilia; Cass Michaels, a member of Rex's band, is Michael Cassio (Iago's fall-guy); and Rod Hamilton, who owns the venue where the party is taking place and secretly pines after Delia, is Roderigo.
Towards the end of the story we began wondering whether this was going to go the whole hog, and end up with everybody dead on a bed, but someone we felt that this didn't seem in keeping with the feel of the film so far. We were right, too – for a moment or so the audience was allowed to think that both Delia and Cass were dead, but they turned out to be OK after all, and although Cass had to be carried from the premises on a stretcher, Delia got to walk off into the early dawn with a deeply contrite Rex.
I don't know whether it's because everyone involved in the film knew they were retelling a Shakespeare story, or just because that's the kind of feel the director was going for anyway, but the composition of the shots, the body language and the verbal delivery were all very theatrical. There were a lot of American accents (most, but not all, genuine) and a lot of people calling each other 'cats' and saying that things were 'wild' or that they 'dug' them. But although there were quite a few shots of people standing around nodding, swaying or tapping their toes to the jazz, no-one ever burst out into the wild ’60s-style dancing I’d been hoping for when Dad said what the film was about.
Roderigo was played by a fresh-faced young Richard Attenborough, but more amusing was Patrick McGoohan as Johnny Cousin (i.e. Iago). He would, of course, go on to prove definitively just how good he is at being superficially nice while also secretly being hard, scheming and slightly creepy five years later in The Prisoner, so it was fun to see him getting a little practice in here – and even better when he casually chucked the line 'be seein' ya' after a departing character. I thought Paul Harris as Aurelius Rex really stole the show, though – which makes me very surprised to see from IMDb that this was his first film, and very sad to see that he did so few others. Doesn’t mean he didn’t have a busy career in the theatre, of course, but since IMDb doesn’t cover that, and he’s one of several actors with the same name, it’s a little difficult to tell.
Anyway, great stuff if you like jazz, The Prisoner or modern re-workings of Shakespeare. But probably best give it a miss if you don’t.
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