Prisoner Number Six, Willie the Shake, and All that Jazz

Will you do me a favor?  No matter what I write in the next paragraph, I want you to commit, right now, to continue reading this column—no matter what.  Do we have a deal?  Okay, here goes …

There’s a movie you’ve just got to see.  It’s a British film from 1962.  It’s directed by a guy you’ve probably never heard of, it stars a TV actor, it’s in black and white, and it’s all about jazz.  Oh, and I should probably mention that it’s based on a Shakespeare play.

Hey, where did everybody go?  Hello?  Is this thing on? [Taps mic]

Oh well.  I guess it’s just us now.

I’ve been itching to write about this film ever since I stumbled across it last year.  It’s called All Night Long and it’s one of those hidden gems that quickly turns you into a zealot, never content until you’ve found someone else to share your enthusiasm.

All Night Long is arguably the greatest jazz movie ever made, but you won’t find it on many “best” lists.  It’s set in a jazz venue nicknamed “The Warehouse.”  The place is owned by “Rod,” a wealthy Londoner played by the late Richard Attenborough.  Rod is hosting a one-year anniversary party for a world-famous African-American bandleader named Rex and his Caucasian wife, Delia.  Delia, we learn, was once a popular singer, and everyone in the movie is anxious to see her return to the stage.  Everyone but Rex.  Over the course of the night, things begin to unravel for Rex, Delia, and the band’s horn-playing road manager, Cass—all thanks to the manipulations and schemes of Rex’s dangerously ambitious drummer, Johnny Cousin.

If that description sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because you once had to read Othello in high school and you remember more of it than your final grade showed.  The parallels between the two are pretty obvious.  Rex, who sports a Duke Ellington mustache, is played by Paul Harris and is clearly based on Othello.  Delia, who inexplicably takes her name from King Lear’s Cordelia, is the movie’s version of Desdemona.  Rod is Roderigo, Cass is Cassio, and Johnny is Iago—the greatest of all Shakespeare’s villains.

But since the movie is set in the world of jazz and features a number of first-rate musicians, this isn’t really Shakespeare—at least not the Renaissance poet of our literature courses.  Instead, he’s more like the hepcat that Lord Buckley described in one of his more famous riffs:

In this language he’s called Willie the Shake.
You know why they called him Willie the Shake?
Because he shook everybody.
They give him a nickel’s worth of ink and five cents worth of paper,
he sat down, wrote up such a breeze, brrt, that’s all there was, Jack,
there was no more.[1]

The film was directed by Basil Dearden, probably best known for Victim.  Harris and Marti Stevens, who plays Delia, were relative newcomers, while the other key roles were filled by more familiar faces like Attenborough, Keith Michell, who plays Cass (and would go on to play a memorable Henry VIII on television), and Betsy Blair, an accomplished actress who had been largely silenced by the Hollywood blacklist.

But the real juice comes from the fiery performance of Patrick McGoohan as Johnny.  Many of you probably know McGoohan as Prisoner Number Six from the ‘60s cult classic, The Prisoner.  He was already a TV star by 1962, having starred as a secret agent on Danger Man.[2] But as Johnny Cousin, McGoohan gives the performance of his life.  From the moment he bursts through the doors of the Warehouse, barking out orders with a rat-a-tat-tat ferocity worthy of a drummer, McGoohan dominates the screen.  Much like Shakespeare’s Iago, Johnny is intense, passionate, and always thinking.  It’s an electrifying performance.

This movie is much more than just a clever update of Shakespeare though.  What makes All Night Long really shine is the music, and it features some legendary musicians in small roles.  The first lines in the film are actually spoken by Charles Mingus, the great bassist, whose career was near its peak.  Later, pianist Dave Brubeck and British sax player Johnny Dankworth both appear in small parts and perform on stage.

All Night Long features nearly wall-to-wall music, and Dearden’s not afraid to linger over the performances.  The highlight is actually an extended drum solo by McGoohan.  I haven’t been able to verify whether McGoohan’s drumming is what we hear on the soundtrack, but he’s clearly doing his own playing on screen—and it’s ferocious.  Leaning slightly in his chair, seemingly daring gravity to pull him off balance, McGoohan launches an assault on his drum set and cymbals.  With sweat beading on his forehead and a touch of madness in his eyes, it’s as if he’s trying to pound his inner demons into submission.  Or, more ominously, perhaps he’s trying to conjure them.  Regardless, for a film with so many musical performances, McGoohan’s solo is by far the most riveting.

The action never leaves the Warehouse and the film takes place in “real time” so everything feels more urgent and intimate—like a play.  It’s as if we, too, have slipped into the club and are digging the music, mixing with the musicians, and overhearing bits of conversation along the way.

Set in the early ‘60s, the movie captures a key moment in time—just prior to the rise of the free jazz and fusion movements that would soon leave many fans behind.  And the location—England—with its mixture of American and British musicians, both black and white, helps to underscore the tensions bubbling under the surface.  Even the three most notable cameos—Mingus, Brubeck, and Dankworth—serve as icons for these different movements.  Mingus, who, earlier in his career, played with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker, represents the African-American tradition, while Brubeck suggests the mostly-white West Coast jazz movement and Dankworth the English tradition.

But part of what’s so great about the movie is that it never really tries to “explain” jazz in a self-conscious way—certainly not in the strained and laborious way I’m doing now.  Except for one brief scene where the stoned Cass gets philosophical with an American booking agent, the film just lets the music speak for itself.  The movie’s structure gives us essentially a long, dark night of the soul—sometimes loud, sometimes quiet, sometimes manic, sometimes blue, often intimate, and occasionally exhibitionist.  And all the characters are just playing off Johnny’s lead.  Ultimately, it’s not a film about jazz.  It is jazz.

And that’s why I wanted to write about it this week.  So thanks for sticking around, and hopefully you’ll give the movie a shot.  Next week I promise to find something to write about that will be of more interest to everyone.  Maybe it’s time for that think piece on cat videos…

[1] Lord Buckley was an extraordinary performance artist in the 1950s who gained fame by translating classic speeches from the Western tradition into the language of “hip.”  For more information, see the Lord Buckley Website.

[2] After the movie, McGoohan would revive the spy character in an hour-long series called The Secret Agent.  And many people read The Prisoner as a follow-up to The Secret Agent, with McGoohan’s character abruptly quitting the service and winding up as the unnamed Prisoner Number Six.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer



  1. Thanks for the suggestion. I love Jazz, Shakespeare, and Patrick McGoohan. I found the movie on Netflix, guess what I’m watching tonight after work!

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