I’m a huge fan of John Cassavetes, and the BFI’s collection of his fiercely independent films was one of the highlights of the last few years. But missing from that series – for obvious reasons – were his studio pictures, shot between his 1959 debut Shadows and his astonishing return to independence with Faces. These films have been widely dismissed as being at best compromised, at worst complete misfires that showed how it was impossible for an artist like Cassavetes to work within the confines of the studio system. So the release of Too Late Blues, his 1961 follow-up to Shadows, is a welcome chance to find out how much of that is true.
As it turns out, Too Late Blues is rather impressive. Yes, it is perhaps compromised to a degree – I’ll get to that in a moment – but by 1961 Hollywood standards, it’s a remarkably gritty, authentic story, shot with an authentic Cassavetes feel. It’s perhaps not quite as good as his other, later movies, but that could as much be filmmaking inexperience as any studio restrictions – Shadows isn’t as good as his later works either.
The compromise comes in two forms, one more damaging than the other. The things that affects the feel of the film more than anything else is the use of studio sets instead of genuine locations. On most movies, you probably don’t even thing about the use of sets, but here it’s noticeable simply because it makes the film look like a film. Cassavetes’ films always had an authenticity of location, a reality that combines with semi-improvised dialogue (something else that seems to be missing here) gave the movies a documentary realism. The use of stage sets takes that element away. This is is powerful and effective drama, but you never stop thinking of it as being just that – a drama. The film doesn’t pull you in to the same extent that his other movies do.
The other compromise is potentially more damaging – Cassavetes had his two leads imposed on him by the studio, and so he has a couple of bona fide stars fronting the film. It’s not like he didn’t use name actors later on, but they were part of his little gang, and always were chosen because they were the best people for the roles in question – not to mention that Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk were not traditional Hollywood glamour. Here, he has former teen-heartthrob Bobby Darin and upcoming starlet Stella Stevens fronting a cast that it otherwise full of his regulars and people he was working with on his TV series Johnny Staccato. It could have been a disaster, a typical moment of Hollywood’s star obsession wrecking a film with inappropriate casting. In fact, both the leads are rather excellent. Darrin is a little odd-looking – short, pudgy faced and with an unconvincing smile, and this works perfectly for his role as an arrogant jazz musician Ghost, determined to stay true to his ‘art’ and never sell out, even if it means his frustrated group playing in empty parks. When he meets aspiring but not especially talented singer Jessica Polanski (Stevens) at a party where she has just been humiliated by sleazy agent Benny Flowers (Everett Chambers), he is immediately smitten, and so his downfall begins.
Stevens is impressively vulnerable and downtrodden. She’s no blonde bimbo, but has been screwed over so many times that she not only expects it but accepts it. When Ghost turns down her sexual advances, she’s hurt and scared because she assumes that her body is all men want from her. But Ghost wants something more. She joins the group as a singer and they strike a record deal, but things fall apart during a celebratory party when Benny, stung by her rejection, provokes a fight between the band and a couple of local toughs, during which Ghost is humiliated by his cowardly reactions. While Jess doesn’t judge him, he lashes out at her and his band, rejecting them all and then doing exactly what he said he never would – selling out for well paid but soulless gigs on the cabaret circuit. Also worth mentioning in a generally excellent cast that includes Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel is Everett Chambers, as the world’s slimiest agent, as content to tear his clients down as build them up, but also the voice of reality as he tells Ghost – who he happily admits to hating – a few home truths after a year of not speaking. Chambers is seedy, bitter and manipulative, yet somehow you suspect he’s a lot more honest than Ghost.
Much has been made of the similarity of the plot of Too Late Blues and Cassavetes’ own life – the struggle of the artist between staying pure and independent and selling out for the money. But if this was a consciously personal story for the director, then it suggests he was ambiguous about the whole thing. Ghost is not an especially sympathetic figure – his determination to stay true to his art is somewhat undermined by the fact that he might not actually be all that talented, as is pointed out to him in final confrontations with Benny and the rich woman who is now sponsoring his career in exchange for his services as a gigolo. And his violent, mean spirited rejection of both the girl who loves him and the band who have stood by him – for no reason other than his own pathetic shame at his inactions during the fight – show him to be petty and vindictive, always ready to blame others for his own failings. It’s no surprise that he finally decides to sell his soul for money and fame (even if it seems that in the end he gets neither) because you never quite believe that he is the dedicated artist he claims to be. Cassavetes, who as an actor appeared in plenty of films he didn’t care about to help finance his own movies, certainly understood the value of compromise – that very few people have the financial freedom just to do the art they want instead of the paying jobs they need.
The relationship between Ghost and Jess is an odd one, but you believe it thanks to Cassavetes giving it a natural progression – it never seems forced – and because these are characters you can understand. Her resigned belief that she will only ever be a sexual object, Ghost’s arrogance and their mutual need for something more in their lives ensures that their relationship (as brief as it is) makes sense within the narrative of the film. And both actors give it their all – Darrin is not an especially good actor, but he works in this role, his odd little smile that always looks a little like a sneer making his pathetic, aggressive cry-baby nature seem all too real. Stevens has perhaps never been better – he character seems pretty cold to begin with but develops your sympathy as she opens up, and when Ghost rejects her, it’s genuinely painful to watch.
The jazz backdrop and studio sets makes Too Late Blues a curious companion piece to Johnny Staccato, where Cassavetes played a jazz musician / private eye; there’s a similar aesthetic running through both, and the music and the characters ensure that the film has a more authentic beatnik culture vibe than most beatsploitation films of the era. But more importantly, it feels like a Cassavetes film, ultimately. A lower level one, perhaps, but not something that is so far removed from the canon that you can’t recognise it. A second rate Cassavetes is still head and shoulders above most other cinema. And in a way, the film might be a good entry point for people looking to explore the director’s work, as it exists at a crossroads where his fiercely individual style and Hollywood melodrama intersected briefly – it’s not so much a jump from ‘regular’ cinema as his later films might be. Already converted fans, on the other hand, should ignore what many people – Cassavetes himself included – have said about this movie and give it a look. You might be pleasantly surprised.