The same year that his marvelous Shadows (1959) was belatedly released writer-director John Cassavetes made his first brief foray into commercial filmmaking. (Wife Gena Rowlands’s sort-of stardom would bring him back to its fringes.) Too Late Blues is a powerful drama about struggling white jazz musicians in Los Angeles. This bleak, beautifully acted film led to the even more commercial A Child Is Waiting (1963), a mentally retarded children-tearjerker with Judy Garland singing at the schoolroom piano and Burt Lancaster watching.
The protagonist of Too Late Blues is “Ghost” Wakefield, whose attempt to be a “pure” and uncompromising musician nonetheless devolves into his becoming the resident gigolo of The Countess, who specializes in Sunset Boulevard-ing young jazz composer/musicians. We are never told The Countess’s real name, but I think I know: Holly Wood. At least on one level, surely Cassavetes is off on an autobiographical riff.
I love this film, with all its tensions and anguish, and the tenuous love affair between Ghost and Jessica Polanski, a singer whose body, she unfortunately believes, defines the limits of her ability.
All in all, the eeriest thing about Too Late Blues is that it came out the same year as The Hustler, which tackles similar themes with oddly similar characters. But whereas Robert Rossen’s study of a pool-hall hustler is rhetorical, academic, schematic and visually phony, Cassavetes’s film overflows with humanity. There is pool-playing in this film also, and the mannered way in which Rossen executes his scenes of the game and the naturalistic, offhanded way in which Cassavetes executes his form an interesting basis for comparison.
Bobby Darin is sensitive, nuanced and extremely intelligent playing Ghost; Stella Stevens, haunting and heartbreaking as Jess. Best of all, perhaps, is Everett Chambers as Benny, Ghost’s satanic agent.
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