Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Ratings (out of five): ****
John Cassavetes was a handsome, severe actor in television and "B" movies when he raised a few dollars to make the landmark independent movie Shadows in 1959. After that, he juggled two sides of a career, in marketable ventures (The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary's Baby, The Fury), and in pure, artistic achievements (Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Love Streams). Sometimes these things crossed comfortably, as in his masterpiece The Killing of a Chinese Bookie -- set among the world of strip joints and contract murders -- or uncomfortably, as in Gloria, a script he wrote to sell, but ended up directing.
Too Late Blues actually wrestles with the phenomenon itself: the struggle between staying true to your art and making a living. The movie itself came about as a result of the success of Shadows. Paramount snapped up the young auteur, signed him, and gave him a couple of stars to work with: Bobby Darin, who was already known for his pop hits "Splish Splash" and "Mack the Knife," and Stella Stevens, who was perhaps less well known as a 1960 Playboy centerfold. (She had also been in the feature film version of Li'l Abner, as "Appassionata Von Climax.")
But Too Late Blues -- newly released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Olive Films -- is an uncompromising movie, for good and for ill. Darin plays "Ghost" Wakefield, a jazz pianist and leader of a quintet. They're good, but their career lately has been playing daytime festivals and benefits. A scene of them playing outdoors in the bright sunshine, in a park, for an absent crowd perfectly illustrates just how out-of-place they are (jazz belongs in the smoky nighttime).
Ghost meets the pretty Jess Polanski at a party and dubs her "Princess." She is first seen singing a wordless jazz tune, and her audience isn't quite sure what to make of it. Some people politely say she's good, Ghost says she's great, and her agent Benny Flowers (Everett Chambers) says she stinks. Cassavetes never answers the question. But Ghost asks her to join the band nonetheless.
Their relationship turns in a very primal scene. In a late night celebration at a favorite hangout, a bully grows drunker and more antagonistic over the course of the evening, and eventually starts a fight with the band members. The others fight back valiantly, but Ghost shows a strain of cowardice. After the fight, Princess realizes that she loves him, but he is mortified by his own behavior and sends her away. Afterward, he decides to sell his soul and becomes the kept boy for a wealthy mistress (Marilyn Clark), playing to unhearing crowds in a swanky club.
Cassavetes' strong suit in this film is faces. He understands when to move in close for a quiet moment, and knows how to arrange the faces in the black-and-white frame to make up a complex and moving picture. He does have a tendency, in medium shots, to crank up the pitch too loud; some of the little speeches verge on the hysterical, but there are enough quiet moments to create a good balance.
Likewise, the performances are largely superb, especially Chambers as the nasty little agent; Chambers makes it heartbreakingly clear that his awful behavior comes as the result of pain and loss. (On a side note, Cassavetes' longtime cohort Seymour Cassel is "introduced" in his first role, though it wasn't really.) Another highlight is the music score by David Raksin, best known for Laura (1944). The music nicely compliments Cassavetes' loose style and conjures up a kind of visual jazz. Though it's not considered one of Cassavetes' major films, Too Late Blues is, in retrospect, a very telling and autobiographical one.
Olive Films' new release features no extras, but the Blu-Ray's sharp picture and clean sound is to be savored.
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