Too Late Blues

(John Cassavetes, USA, 1961)


Partly due to the biases of Raymond Carney’s lamentably over-cited work on John Cassavetes, Too Late Blues has often been regarded, sight unseen, as a minor work in the œuvre – a straitjacketed “Hollywood” interregnum (alongside A Child Is Waiting, 1963) between the freer, experimental, independently produced Shadows (1959) and Faces (1968).


Finally made available on DVD in 2012 thanks to Olive Films, Too Late Blues’ status in cinema history is sure to change.


It is certainly a more conventional revisitation of elements from Shadows: jazz club milieu, Beat/hipster lifestyle, the problem of creative, musical freedom versus commercial, record-industry compromise.


But there is much that is remarkable in Too Late Blues: the unusual dramatic rhythms; an artfully meandering narrative construction; an unflinching exploration of difficult emotions; sudden switches of mood; outbursts of violence; and performances that go well beyond type-casting.


Both Bobby Darin as jazz muso Ghost and Stella Stevens as aspiring singer Jess are surprising and superb.


Sexual intimacy is often an uncertain, mutually troubling encounter in Cassavetes’ cinema, but here it is downright scary: the cocktail of desire, doubt, fear, ambition and alcoholic intoxication take a tough toll on Ghost and Jess.


Contemporaneous with The Hustler (1961), most men here (especially Everett Chambers as the creepy music agent, Benny) are potential rapists or predatory pimps, and women live in a constant state of near-suicidal insecurity. They are aware at every moment of both their attractiveness (“Where do I stand without my body?”, asks Jess) and their perceived lack of real worth in a man’s world.


In fact, this bleakness covers both genders: Ghost, too, is pressured into becoming a gigolo for an older jazz-patroness, much to the detriment of his self-esteem.


Co-writing and producing as well as directing, this is a more personal project for Cassavetes than has been hitherto recognised. And not least so in the charming role for Nick Dennis (Kiss Me Deadly, 1955) as a gregarious Greek-American, a hard-working guy in charge of his hang-out bar.


MORE Cassavetes: Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz

© Adrian Martin July 2012

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search