John Cassavetes: Too Late Blues

MPW-54630Recently issued on home video by Olive Films, Too Late Blues (1961) marked John Cassavetes’s second feature film as a director and first under the umbrella of Paramount. His 1959 independent debut Shadows is an American analog to the French New Wave. If anything, Shadows’s visual collage and discursive narrative make it more striking than either François Truffaut’s Les quatres cent coups (The 400 Blows, 1959) or Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout la soufflé (Breathless, 1960). With its frank exploration of race, sex, and the travails of the artist’s life, Shadows has more in common with the jazz music of its soundtrack (provided by Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi) than anything Hollywood produced in the 1950s.

That said, someone saw Shadows and gave Cassavetes a chance out west, or perhaps the oddball TV show in which he starred as a “jazz detective,” Johnny Staccato, gave him an in. Musicians who contributed to the show—including Benny Carter, Jimmy Rowles, and Shelley Manne—also provided music tracks for Seymour Cassell and his fellow actors on the film. The eminent David Raksin composed music for Too Late Blues, which follows the misfortunes of Ghost Wakefield, an idealistic but cowardly jazz composer, pianist, and bandleader. Cassavetes reins in showman Bobby Darin as Ghost and asks audiences to question whether they need to care about his troubles in order to keep watching. One reason to continue is that Cassavetes trumps Stella Stevens’s Playboy calling card by having Wakefield—for reasons more private, perhaps, than we at first realize—refuse her carnal come-on as the sexy but fragile singer Jess Polanski. The two form a couple, then fall apart before a tentative reconciliation. It is an old story, but ultimately secondary to Cassavetes’s main preoccupations.

One of these is the savagery of the culture and entertainment industries, personified by Everett Chambers’s Benny Flowers, manager of Ghost, sometime paramour of Jess, and fulltime psychological sadist. His emotional ferocity degrades his victims, who of course are beholden to him for their careers.  An extended scene at a music industry party introduces Benny as well as the double-dealing, backstabbing, and selling out that perhaps reflects the director’s own disgust as he works for a major studio on his film.

In his authoritative study of jazz and the American cinema, Krin Gabbard notes that in the 1950s white jazz artists attained a strong following, providing “alternative models of masculinity based more in creativity and feeling than in the conventional modes of phallic dominance that characterized mainstream male heroes of the era.”[1] Darin’s Ghost, who plays just the kind of jazz being made popular by, say, Chet Baker, is a strong example of this, but again Cassavetes undercuts expectations. Ghost is not allowed to find success based on his creativity, and his sensitivity betrays him. First, he refuses to fight when an after-gig party gets out of hand, compromising his own masculinity. Humiliated, he breaks with both Jess and his group and finds work only by becoming the gigolo of the Countess (Marilyn Clark), a socialite “sponsor” of jazz musicians.

In an odd opening, Ghost’s all-white quintet is shown playing at an all-black elementary school or community center. A young boy steals the tenor saxophone and begins blowing as the room erupts in laughter. These white hepcats, whose alienation drives much of the story, make “sensitive,” that is structured, cool jazz that has refined away the music’s cultural roots. Ghost’s gig is up, Cassavetes seems to be saying, from the outset. That they will play a concert “for the birds” in a park next shows the limits of Ghost’s idealism. In Blue Notes in Black and White’s fifth chapter, I discuss jazz’s effort to both entertain and uplift in the 1950s, the last moment when it could be considered popular music. Too Late Blues questions the basis of that popularity—even for white musicians playing self-consciously “artistic” compositions—as the moment itself faded. Ghost is indeed out of time.

250_BD_box_348x490_originalBut John Cassavetes was not. He would go on to create a body of work from the late 1960s on—Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1977) among them—that obsessively focus on character above all else. Along with Shadows, those titles have recently been reissued on Blu-ray. These uncompromising works were founded on improvisations during long rehearsal periods, with long scenes and takes that pushed well past American film conventions and into territory where only other arts had ventured. There are strong intimations of this approach in Too Late Blues, a work that deserves to be seen more widely.

Too Late Blues (dir. John Cassavetes, 1961). Olive Films DVD and Blu-ray, 2012.

John Cassavetes: Five Films. The Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray, 2004, 2013.

 


[1] Krin Gabbard, Jammin’ at the Margins: Jazz and the American Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 129.

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