When seeds of malice and deceit are planted, only the worst kind of garden, watered by blood and tears, will bloom. The Ancient Greeks knew this, as did the Bard himself when he wrote his early 1600’s play, Othello. (Which in turn was based on “The Moorish Captain,” a 1565 short story written by Cinthio, an Italian writer and poet. Art, much like an onion and that one book in the Bible that is a series of “begetting,” is a never ending string of inspiration, revisions and occasional outright thievery.) When it comes to this story being adapted for the Silver Screen, most are at least familiar with the 1952 adaptation directed by and starring Orson Welles or the 1995 film starring Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh. There is one film out of the number of various versions that tends to get left out of the fold, unjustifiably. A film that, while it could have only been born out of the late 60’s /early 70’s, has retained the timelessness of Cinthio and Shakespeare’s tragedy. The film in question? 1974’s Catch My Soul.
Patrick McGoohan, who is better known for his acting work on the classic 60’s TV show The Prisoner (as well as Howard Hughes’ favorite film ever, Ice Station Zebra), directed Catch My Soul, a modern-day musical reworking of the famous tale. Starring legendary folk singer/Woodstock juggernaut Richie Havens as Othello, whom instead of being a general for the Venetian army, is now a man of God baptizing a ragtag group of boho-commune types. There’s the apple of his eye, the meekly boyish Desdemona (a very young Season Hubley) and his righthand man, Cassio (musician Tony Joe White), a former boozer who has found redemption through Christ and Othello himself. But there’s a snake in the land of pure love and spirituality in the form of Iago (Lance Legault), who, along with some help from his wife Amelia (the eternally inimitable Susan Tyrell), plots and plants assorted seeds for Othello’s hellish downfall.
Catch My Soul manages to nail all the things that were right about some of its cinematic peers (ie. Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar or David Greene’s Godspell, both of which came out the year before) and mercifully escapes a number of their flaws. Thanks to McGoohan’s able direction, writer Jack Good’s script and the impeccable camerawork by Conrad L. Hall, the film never slips into any dated hippie-dippy cliches and retains the gravitas of the original source material. Even better, the religious angle is heavy but without claw-hammering the audience. Catch My Soul is interesting for many reasons and this is one of the strongest ones. It is a tale of sadness, loss of faith, love punctured and spirituality without becoming a full blown “religious” film. Which is one of the things that undoubtedly hurt the film’s chances of success during its initial theatrical release. Not religious enough for the hardcore fundamentalist crowd and too strange for the rest. A modern-day musical re-telling of Shakespeare’s Othello with a spiritual tint starring Richie Havens and Susan Tyrell is a film that in a just world should sound immediately appealing to most, but this existence’s version of justice is about as moth-eaten and flimsy as ¾ of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work.
In further injustice, Catch My Soul never even warranted a home video release via VHS, Beta, Laserdisc or DVD. That is, until very recently, via Etiquette Pictures and their beautifully remastered Blu-ray release. (See? Some things do right themselves out… you just may have to wait a few decades for the scales to balance.)
The music is solid, which is a no-brainer given that, in addition to Havens and White (who had a big hit in ‘68 with “Polk Salad Annie”), the film also features such noted musicians as Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, as well as Billy Joe Royal (of “Down in the Boondocks” fame). Interestingly enough, it is Legault who does the lion’s share of the singing and he not only brings it vocally, but makes for one of the most manic and intense Iagos in recent memory. He plays Iago as if the man himself is literally the Devil. Charismatic even when covered in sweat and dirt and soot and frightening as the awareness that the only demon living in Iago’s fevered, poxed soul is the one in his mind, Legault is stellar. For a man who got his start as a stunt double for Elvis, later on starred in The A-Team and worked as a lounge singer, where is his documentary? Someone needs to plant that seed and soon.
As Othello himself, Havens brings a quiet dignity and heavy heart to this role, portraying the man from gentle giant (especially with his 6’6 frame compared to Hubley’s 5’5 height) to tortured, shredded faith of a husband. Hubley herself is quite sweet in a meek way as the ill-fated Desdemona. But if we’re talking building the barn, storming said barn and the igniting the freshly built and stormed structure with nitroglycerin, then I got two words for you: Susan Tyrrell. Tyrrell, much like her kindred force-of-nature actor spirits (also see, Klaus Kinski, Oliver Reed, Timothy Carey, etc, etc), is noted for being able to bring the storms but never quite given enough attention for being able equally to bring the quiet to the storm as well. She was a multi-layered powerhouse of an actress and as Amelia, she is given the chance to be subtle, seductive, brassy and ultimately redemptive. It’s a wonderful portrayal and is every inch a match for Legault’s macho-brimstone of a man.
Catch My Soul is a fantastic and unjustly buried adaptation of a classic Shakespeare play that is not only ripe for rediscovery, but now available for it. Between the gorgeous and desolate desert imagery, the surprising and refreshing approach to a centuries old story, good music and some strong performances, Catch My Soul is a title worthy of weighty appreciation.