Too Late Blues (1961)

Director/Coscreenwriter: John Cassavetes

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Without getting sucked down the hole that is the Preminger Abomination, all I can say is that I wish John Cassavetes had directed The Man with the Golden Arm instead. Unlike the silver-spooned Teuton for whom the down-and-outers of Nelson Algren’s masterpiece were alien, inconsequential toys to serve his master plan to crack the Production Code, John Cassavetes was able to say about the fringe dwellers who populate Too Late Blues:

This is a film about people I know, the night people, the jazz musicians, the drifters and dreamers, the floaters, the chicks, the smilers, the hangers-on, the phonies, too much sex, not enough love—and they live in a world of too late blues.

Nelson Algren couldn’t have said it better, and as I watched this flawed, but sincere film, it reminded me so much of Algren’s book—indeed, his world view—that I almost felt as though I were watching the remake of the film that cries out most to me to get another shot at the big screen.

Too Late Blues tells the story of a Los Angeles jazz combo headed by John “Ghost” Wakefield (Bobby Darin) as they knock about trying to make a living without compromising Ghost’s musical vision. Stella Stevens plays Jess “Princess” Polanski, a troubled, would-be singer who captures Ghost’s heart and breaks it. There are a few capillary plotlines, for example, a record deal Ghost blows when Jess gives him the brush-off, but this film isn’t really about anything. In true Cassavetes style, the film concentrates on the booze-fueled rituals of men as they work, play, and pursue sexual and romantic fulfillment. His sophomore outing as director after his breakout debut Shadows (1959), Too Late Blues suffers from being a Paramount production; the necessity of a set script and a less controversial romance than the interracial couple in Shadows make what could have been a spontaneous flowering of volcanic emotion more like the forced bloom of a greenhouse plant.

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The opening image is of an unsmiling African-American boy, the arms of his mother encircling his shoulders, as they stand in what looks like a home-based school full of children and watch a jazz combo perform. At the end of their set, saxophonist Reno (James Joyce) puts his horn down, and the boy instantly grabs it. Reno calls him a dirty name and chases him as the other children laugh and impede his progress. Finally, he catches the boy and asks, “Can I have my horn?” The young audience and the impotence of the band in dealing with them signal the low-rung, vulnerable men the film will portray.

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The band heads to the traditional man cave—a pool hall—where they playfully harass its Greek owner Nick Bobolenos (Nick Dennis), taking his food and beer and skipping out on the tab. Nick is bombastic, loud, and indulgent, just I imagine Cassavetes’ father might have been, treating the musicians like wayward children, a status some of them chafe at. “I’m nearly 30,” says Reno, voicing the band’s general dissatisfaction with their going-nowhere careers and lack of money. Ghost, however, would prefer to play in a park to birds and trees than do covers or write more popular music.

When Ghost meets Jess, his agent Benny’s (Everett Chambers) new client and former lover, sparks fly. She has a high, thin voice that will never carry her out of her subsistence living as a chippy, but she is touched that Ghost won’t sleep with her their first night together and hires her for the band. They quickly fall in love, but when Ghost suffers a humiliating beatdown at Nick’s at the hands of an Irish-American bigot (Vince Edwards) who doesn’t like jazz musicians who mix with African Americans, Ghost rejects Jess’ ministrations. Hurt, she runs straight for the gutter as fast as she can; Ghost, for his part, quits the band right before they are to cut a record and sells out like a male version of Jess, playing lounge music at a night club and allowing himself to be kept by a rich woman (Marilyn Clark). The film’s denouement isn’t exactly hopeful, but it does see Jess, Ghost, and the band together again performing the song they were set to record, a tenuous link to their better dreams and selves.

The script of the film is arch, self-conscious, and striving too hard to be poetic and profound. Cassavetes and his coscreenwriter Richard Carr, a TV writer who worked on Cassavetes’ series Johnny Staccato, don’t have much talent for writing poetic dialogue that can also create character and forward a strong, cohesive plot. Scenes feel cobbled together and randomly motivated. For example, the record producer (Val Avery) hates the song the band wants to record, but does a complete about-face when the band starts to play it again. Seeing the band playing to no one in a park is the worst in arthouse conceit; when they fold up shop and join the kids who have been playing baseball in the background, the film suddenly fills with vitality and warmth. I can imagine that Cassavetes thought the impromptu baseball game would show how these men are still boys, but in fact, it shows that they have the life and spontaneity to be successful musicians and men if given proper motivation and opportunity.

Nonetheless, Cassavetes’ deep connection to human pain underlies most every scene. The acting is a very mixed bag, from the too-intense Chambers to Joyce’s straight shooter, the perfect runner-up for Jess’ attentions. Clark is quite good as the jewel-bedecked “Countess,” with a harder edge of sexuality that clearly defines her desperation regarding her fading beauty. Darin exudes musician cool and ardent love, a charismatic natural who is wisely allowed to be himself. One waits for the seasoned Edwards to emerge from the background to play a significant role, and he delivers a scary, violent racist from a sketchily defined motivation.

Stella Stevens is the most talented of the film’s cast, clearly offering a version of the Cassavetes woman usually played by his wife Gena Rowlands. But she infuses the self-loathing, insecure Jess with smoldering sexuality that moves just over the line into vulgarity, and her close-up work matches up with the best in the business. Unbelievably beautiful, she is able to show some of Jess’ ugliness, for example, when she balances two johns trying to pick her up at a bar in a series of two-shot close-ups that contrast the leering men with her smothered insolence. With her Polish last name, I became convinced that Jess was directly modeled on Molly “O” Novatny from Algren’s novel, and became excited by the idea that despite its flaws, Too Late Blues provides some vindication for Algren’s vision on the big screen.

Cassavetes would return to the raw, dark nights of the soul he pioneered with Shadows, but his experiment in trying to fuse his more documentary style with a traditional, set-bound Hollywood picture is an interesting failure well worth watching for the performances of Darin, Stevens, and Clark; Seymour Cassel’s brief debut performance as band member Red; and the music of such jazz greats as Shelly Manne, Benny Carter, and Red Mitchell. Too Late Blues was a necessary trial for Cassavetes that would lead to successively more polished hybrids that would reach their apex with Opening Night (1977).

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    26th/02/2012 to 11:01 pm

    I saw this many years ago on late night TV. I’m glad it’s finally getting a DVD release.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/02/2012 to 8:33 am

    I saw this projected at our revival house. Aside from a few splices at the start, it looked great. Stella Stevens is absolutely stunning in it.

  • Shane spoke:
    28th/02/2012 to 9:07 am

    I will see this movie. I find these kind of films more to my liking than most of the stuff made nowadays.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/03/2012 to 1:56 pm

    Well, you didn’t exactly say it, but I could almost read between the lines, and after I do I find myself in full agreement with my perception for your seeming judgement: A Cassevettes failure is worth far more than many others’ successes. This sentiment rings true in your specific observations and references points in the rare Cassevettes I have not yet seen. Not at all surprised that Stella Stevens delivers. I like SHADOWS and the style that you assert is replicated here.

    Excellent piece!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/03/2012 to 4:43 pm

    Thanks, Sam, and yes, this film fails, but it does so nobly and with some excellent aspects to appreciate. I don’t regret making time for it, and it fills a hole in my knowledge of early Cassavetes.

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    1st/04/2012 to 12:38 am

    It’s always heartening to read praise of Stella Stevens as an actress. I’ve long placed her on the top tier of great ones. I have this movie on VHS somewhere and must get around to seeing it, now that I’ve read your review. After all these years, Cassavetes is still an artist I can approach yet never totally comprehend. It’s like the afternoon in 11th grade honors English when I kept re-reading ‘J. Alfred Prufrock’ because even though I couldn’t understand it, I felt deeply that I was near something great. This film could be the bridge in my comprehension. Wonderfully written, as usual!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/04/2012 to 8:59 am

    Thanks, Doug, and nice to see you back!

    It can be easy to dismiss the blondes of the 50s and 60s as nothing but bimbo window dressing, but Cassavetes is never reductive about any human being. He was especially sensitive to women, and knows a great actress when he sees one. Stevens is riveting in this film.

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