Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Producers: John Cassavetes
Starring: Bobby Darin, Stella Stevens, Everett Chambers
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 96 mins
John Cassavetes is a director who I’ve always had an up and down relationship with. I’ve always found his films fascinating in one way or another but I’ve also struggled with many of them, often finding them tedious or borderline incomprehensible. Nevertheless, I’ve kept coming back because when Cassavetes makes a good film it’s usually the sort of unique and brilliant experience that stays with you for life. At his worst, Cassavetes veers dangerously close to the affected excesses of a drama school exercise, as in the lowest depths of his frustratingly artificial Faces, but at his best he captures all the emotional ambiguity of real life without any of the sentimentality that clouds the movie world’s vision of reality, as in his viscerally superb A Woman Under the Influence.
My favourite Cassavetes film by far is his debut, the seminal independent film Shadows, with its almost incidental plot and exhilaratingly loose structure which captures the everyday goings-on in the lives of its characters. Shadows was enough of a phenomenon to lead to a major studio deal for Cassavetes’ sophomore effort. Although it retains something of the smoky jazz atmosphere of the debut, Too Late Blues takes a straighter narrative approach, even as it defies our expectations of what the characters will do. The scenes play out like little filmed plays, reminiscent of gritty stabs at realism that followed in the early to mid 60s. The Hustler is a film that springs to mind, although the tidy discipline of that film’s structure is quite different from what’s going on in Too Late Blues. I’m struggling to find reference points here because, really, there aren’t any. Too Late Blues is a unique combination of Cassavetes’ celebrated experimentalism and the more accessible kitchen sink minimalisms of social issues films. Perhaps the film has become such a lost gem because it failed to please either fans of Shadows who found it too conventional, or fans of more mainstream dramas who were perplexed by the characters’ sometimes hard-to-grasp motivations. Too Late Blues is an absorbing glimpse of what might have been if these two audience factions could have got it together.
Plot summaries are inadequate and unnecessary here. Too Late Blues is a complex tale of compromised masculinity, fragile integrity and wounded pride and these themes are compartmentalised into a neat, logical structure which doesn’t offer any tied-up ends but does impose some order on proceedings, the like of which was intentionally missing from Cassavetes’ much-lauded The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (a film I could never get one with, despite having watched it three times and in two different versions). The more conventional structure does reduce some of the energy of Cassavetes’ most vital works, making some of the later scenes in particular play like hysterical melodrama, but overall it works well and makes the action more palatable without sacrificing the gripping intricacy. Cassavetes’ script, written in collaboration with TV veteran Richard Carr, is exceptionally intelligent and, especially in the early scenes, snappy as hell, the occasional concession to artificiality being forgivable considering some of the great speeches it results in.
The casting of Too Late Blues is impeccable, not least in the surprisingly affective lead performance of crooner Bobby Darin, who makes jazz musician Ghost initially the most likable presence imaginable before impeccably portraying his complex humiliation and subsequent descent into inexplicable actions. Also good, if a little histrionic when the material forces her to be, is Stella Stevens, a promising young actress whose beauty unfortunately saw her more often than not being cast in ‘ogle-me-now’ roles, such as her bland supporting role in Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor. Both leads are quietly acted off the screen, however, by Everett Chambers mesmerising turn as jealous, wild-eyed agent Benny. Chambers was a successful TV producer whose work included long-running series such as Peyton Place, Columbo and Airwolf, and Too Late Blues was his only film role as an actor. Although he initially appears to be overplaying his role, it turns out that like everything in Too Late Blues, the role of Benny is more complex than it first appears and Chambers’ eerily pathetic characterisation is a triumph.
Ultimately, though Too Late Blues is more accessible than much of Cassavetes’ work I would not call it a mainstream film and many viewers may find its considered pace and convoluted characterisations frustrating. Viewers like me who have always found Cassavetes interesting but challenging may find some respite here, although I would never recommend this as a starting point for those curious about Cassavetes, as it may whet the appetite for something that proves to be frustratingly impossible to obtain. Cassavetes never made another film like this again. It is an anomaly in his catalogue and in cinema in general, but what a beautifully gripping and rewarding anomaly it is.
Too Late Blues is released by Eureka on dual format Blu Ray and DVD on 21st July 2014. Extras include a commentary by critic David Cairns, an interview with Stella Stevens and a 52 page booklet.