Jan 8, 2012

Too Late Blues (1962)

Director / Producer: John Cassavetes
Writers: Richard Carr, John Cassavetes
Cinematographer: Lionel Lindon
Music: David Raksin
Paramount; 100 min,; B&W

Bobby Darin (John 'Ghost' Wakefield), Stella Stevens (Jess Polanski), Everett Chambers (Benny Flowers), Nick Dennis (Nick Bobolenos), Vince Edwards (Tommy Sheehan), Val Avery (Milt Frielobe), Marilyn Clark (Countess), James Joyce (Reno Vitelli), Rupert Crosse (Baby Jackson), Cliff Carnell (Charlie), Seymour Cassel (Red)

While today he is best known as a director, John Cassavetes was best remembered as an actor during his lifetime. However, he would star in such films as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby to fund his own idiosyncratic projects as a writer and director. After his directorial debut, the trailblazing independent feature Shadows (1959), he went to Hollywood to direct two films, Too Late Blues (1962) and A Child Is Waiting (1963), which fans of his directorial output generally shun, as they aren’t “true” Cassavetes films. In other words, these films are more formulaic commercial product, which have the polished studio look and the conventional story structure that he generally avoided. His more “pure”, “honest” movies (as in later, self-funded efforts like Faces) would forsake narrative for explorations into character. As such the often boorish people in a “real” Cassavetes film would be vastly unpredictable -powderkegs who would run the gamut of emotions often within a single scene- and rendered for the screen in a pseudo-documentary feel. While Hollywood movies enslaved the actor for the camera by ensuring they hit their marks on the floor, the camera instead became the slave to the actor in a Cassavetes picture, forsaking classical screen composition to give a sense of spontaneity, as though the moment is being captured on the fly, unrehearsed.

However, it is unfair to dismiss these two studio films as work by a pioneering independent director slumming in Hollywood. One can sense that he was attempting to bring his own style to these commercial pictures: at their worst, they are uneven for their odd mixture of studio polish and gritty realism. The effect is much the same as an unwashed person putting on a clean suit. Both of these films are inferior to what they might have been had there not been the unsurprising clashes between a brash young director and a studio concerned mostly with the bottom line, however they are far from the travesties that devotees of his independent features would have you believe.

Too Late Blues is perhaps the least seen of Cassavetes’ features as a director: it has never been released on any format for home video, and hardly ever plays on television (and certainly not in an age where most late-night programming is replaced by all those rotten infomercials). My first (and for a long time, only) viewing of it was on Bravo in 1996, back in an age when such rare and diverse programming as this was the rule, not the exception, before this so-called “arts channel” dissolved into showing incessant reruns of CSI and Law and Order. While at first, I dismissed this movie as a weak piece which neither works as a mainstream commercial picture nor as a quirky independent film, a second glance reveals it to be a unique project, however imperfect. (And besides, is there any other filmmaker than Cassavetes whose work always warrants a second glance or change of mind?)

John “Ghost” Wakefield is a jazz pianist who will not sacrifice his musical style in order to make it more commercial- his friends in the combo support this ideal, however since they’re not getting any younger, they want something greater than the usual performances in schools and parks that Ghost has happily confined the group to on the provision that they play what they want. At a cocktail party, Ghost meets a self-deprecating amateur vocalist Jess, likes her unique talent in vocalese (wordless singing), and adds her to the band, falling in love with her during the collaborative process. After a recording session, the band is celebrating at their favourite hangout, when a fight breaks out with some jazz-hating hooligans. This moment indirectly makes Ghost aware of his own inabilities as a leader, especially to his partners, and then abruptly leads the group.

The production had already begun with some studio interference, as Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens were hired over Cassavetes’ own choices for the leads: Montgomery Clift (!) and the director’s wife, Gena Rowlands. However, the most damaging aspect of the interference was the removal of a downbeat ending (however it still ends on a rather ambiguous note). Yet, Too Late Blues still suffers from a muddled third act. After spending some time whoring himself for a countess by playing mediocre music for crowds (becoming the very thing that he had always despised), Ghost attempts to reconcile with the band, and with Jess, whose life has dissolved to prostitution after the split. It is unclear whether Ghost’s attempts to patch things up with his former lover and friends is out of love, or to restore his own artistic dignity- in either event, although the ending remains more ambiguous than the happy resolution that the studio wanted (and certainly less downbeat than Cassavetes’ intention), it still fades out with a hackneyed conclusion.

While I would have loved to see Montgomery Clift in the lead (his haunted persona would have added much more of the requisite insecurity to the role), I’m rather glad they got Bobby Darin- although he’s no Montgomery Clift, he’s decent in a rare dramatic role, and undoubtedly brings his own musical instincts to the party. (Besides, Cassavetes’ films are all autobiographical in a sense, as the actors bring a little of themselves into the project- in fact the whole aspect of a jazz man trying not to sell out could be read as a reflection of the director’s life at the time, trying to remain independent within a studio system.) However, the casting of the luminescent Stella Stevens was a perfect choice: this multi-talented actress is equally at home in a role demanding both tragedy and sprightly humour, and she steals the film.

John Cassavetes always loved to tell contradictory stories about his work in order to confound the press (in that regard, he is much like his kindred spirit Orson Welles), and in one bizarre tract he had stated that Too Late Blues was basically the same story as Shadows, however with a white cast, suggesting that his stories can be universal enough to be played by any race. The colour line dissolves in the opening credits, as the camera tracks past kids and teachers in an all-black school swaying to some jazz being played offscreen, until it pans to reveal that we’ve been hearing white musicians. However, while the films may be similar structurally, thematically they are different: the big split in Shadows is over race, whereas the defining breakup in Too Late Blues is over a man’s recognition of his own frailties.

In that sense, this film is similar to the director’s later domestic films, like Husbands or Woman Under the Influence: the male adults are children at heart, who really don’t understand responsibility. Additionally, the Jess character presages many of his female characters in subsequent work, who are always portrayed as erratic, helpless creatures surrounded by doltish males.

Too Late Blues is not great cinema, either as commercial product or as a personal statement; no matter how you look at it, the mise en scene is rather flat: hand-held docu-drama sequences clash with gauzy, studio interiors. It is however a valuable piece for those moments that exist in between the plot. Such sequences where the band breaks off its afternoon park jam session to play baseball, or where Ghost and Jess have a late-night drinking game in an empty bar are wonderful moments where Cassavetes characteristically allows the characters to show a bit more of themselves as people, with seeming spontaneity, stuttering and overlapping dialogue.

In another bizarre statement, Cassavetes had said that all of his films are comedies at heart- perhaps he said that because all of his characters’ lives are tangled with misunderstandings, which is the essential catalyst for most comedy. In more literal terms, Too Late Blues fits that description, as there is possibly more laughter felt from viewing this than any other of his pictures. Such a feeling derives from those seeming freestyle moments where the characters naturally interact and play with each other. It is also for these moments that Too Late Blues nonetheless remains quite special.


Dave Lamb said...

Sounds worthwhile! Did it resurface on TV or home video to permit your second viewing?

No vocals by Darin?

The G-Man said...

Hi Dave- no vocals by Darin, he's the piano player. Stella Stevens handles the vocalese.

I saw it here-- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JB58P0ckH8Q

Thanks for writing!