Too Late Blues Review

Jazz on a summer’s day as John Cassavetes’ studio picture comes to MoC Dual Format

A great deal of the intrigue emanating from Too Late Blues lies in the seeming contrast between it having been made by a major Hollywood studio (Paramount) and the movie’s director and co-writer being probably the most important figure in the history of American independent film. On top of that, John Cassavetes was just coming off of the success of his fiercely iconoclastic, microbudgeted directorial debut Shadows. His follow-up had roughly nine times the budget of Shadows and a crew filled with studio veterans like costume designer Edith Head, composer David Raksin, and cinematographer Lionel Lindon. It also gave the twentysomething singer and teen idol Bobby Darin his first lead film role. Regardless, the spirit never fully wavered, and even now, Too Late Blues perhaps plays best as something of an experiment or a merger between studio resources and motivations and stubborn resilience to creative integrity.

Darin plays jazz band leader Ghost Wakefield, whose group is apparently talented but resists compromise to the point of commercial ruin. They have an agent named Benny (Everett Chambers, in his only film role) who one night has another of his struggling clients crudely auditioning at a party. “Princess” Jess Polanski (Stella Stevens) is a fragile blonde trying to sing scat despite not knowing the style. The performance goes nowhere but she catches Ghost’s eye and the two end up together. Their relationship leads to her inclusion in the band, a glimmer of success, and fleeting happiness. A bar brawl with Vince Edwards changes everything and sets up one of the more melancholy endings you’re likely to see from an early sixties Hollywood drama. In truth, the entire last act is pretty downbeat, and it’s not as though the preceding section of the film would be mistaken for being light. Unsurprising that audiences didn’t connect at the time of its release.

That would hardly have been the fault of Darin, who’s fine here, as he was in everything I’ve seen him in, particularly Pressure Point, and it’s hardly an easy role to play. There’s an arrogance required which can’t fully turn the viewer off but nonetheless has to come across as part of the overall damage available from the character. It’s not really the kind of part we’d typically see from this period in Hollywood. Knowing that Cassavetes wanted Montgomery Clift makes the character and Darin’s performance even more intriguing, perhaps, since one can’t help but think about how the approach might have differed. Clift was probably not right for the part at that stage in his career, unfortunately, but the actor ten years or so earlier would have been a fascinating choice.

Pertinent to the discussion, too, is what Cassavetes accomplishes outside of the main narrative thrust. It’s not an especially novel or compelling plot, other than maybe the parallels teeming from the lack of compromise displayed by Ghost in the film and Cassavetes in his career. Guy meets girl, destruction ensues. That’s a simplified version. What else goes on – and how it does – adds the important layers. For instance, one shot early on shows Darin sitting on Stevens’ bed, lit darkly, and repeats the actor in the frame via mirror. It’s a gorgeous moment. Shortly afterwards, a great diversion occurs in which the band members and Stevens happen upon a baseball team and end up competing against them. It’s almost a throwaway, narratively, but really functions as one of the stronger sequences in the film for its free, rambunctious tone. It also feels right at home in a Cassvetes picture.

There’s plenty to connect this 1962 effort to Cassavetes’ other projects, namely the presence of jazz as an occupational, creative force. Shadows, of course, is an incredibly jazz-inflected film, and Johnny Staccato, the television show Cassavetes had been working on leading up to Too Late Blues, had him play a jazz pianist who moonlighted as a private detective (or, maybe, vice versa). Not coincidentally, many of the people who worked on this picture had also been involved with Johnny Staccato. Further parallels run deeper but are still there. As the booklet essay for this release points out, the roughhousing pack of male friends featured is very much familiar as a specifically Cassavetes dynamic. The harsh emotional tolls we see these characters suffer (often taken vicariously by the viewer) also seem in line with things to come from his films.

The Disc(s)

Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Series interrupts its licensing of Paramount films already done by the Criterion Collection in the U.S. to focus on one released previously by the label Olive Films. In more ways than one, this Region B-locked Dual Format edition is easily the one to own.

The aspect ratio used here is 1.78:1, a slight variation on the original 1.85:1 made popular for 16:9 widescreen televisions. MoC and Olive seem to have used the same source for their transfers but the former boosted the bitrate and put the film on a dual-layered disc. It isn’t a leap in quality by any means but the MoC does show greater use of grain and black levels. The good news, too, is that there’s no real damage to speak of present in this print and things appear consistently detailed. Overall, it looks solid and pleasing.

Audio for the MoC release is an English LPCM mono track which emits the jazzy numbers and dialogue equally well. The film maybe teases the jazz element early on more than it delivers as the time passes, but everything sounds clear here. No damage or other intrusions could be heard on the soundtrack. Optional English subtitles are available for the hearing impaired.

Only a video discussion (17:16) with critic David Cairns can be found as a supplement on the disc. (The DVD wasn’t available for review but it presumably contains the same piece.) Other than his frequent mispronunciation of the director’s last name, Cairns contributes a good and not always superlative-laden take on the film. This willingness to not be blindly laudatory in his comments helps develop a certain trust with the viewer considering we’re dealing with a movie that’s more interesting than masterful. Cairns also talks a few minutes about Cassavetes’ next picture, A Child Is Waiting, which also has its considerable strengths, in my opinion.

The included 52-page booklet opens with one of those almost blindly laudatory assessments that I just hinted at makes me weary. David Sterritt’s new essay runs goes for eleven pages of text. It’s followed by a seven-page 1961 Cassavetes profile done for Film Quarterly. Composer David Raksin’s autobiography was published as an e-book by his son in 2012 and the few pages devoted to this film have been reproduced here. Fitting in subject matter but not tone is the interview with Stella Stevens, conducted in 2007. There’s little of interest here and the claim that Bobby Darin developed an erection during a kissing scene fails to foster any kind of added appreciation. Numerous stills and credits for both the film and MoC release pad out the rest of the booklet.

clydefro jones

Updated: Jul 16, 2014

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