Too Late Blues Blu-ray Review

There’s a moment towards the end of John Cassavetes’ superb 1962 jazz picture Too Late Blues in which Benny Flowers (Everett Chambers) verbally destroys Ghost (Bobby Darin), the tragic hero of the film. Flowers lays out the way in which Ghost, a talented jazz pianist, has sold out and you can see Ghost slowly fall apart, decimated by the idea that he has wasted his shot at something that matters in life.

This scene comes with the definite sense that Cassavetes and co-writer Richard Carr had something to say and weren’t holding back. Flowers’ words are powerful enough to knock you back in your seat; what he’s saying is true and important, and Cassavetes and Carr know it all too well.

Too Late Blues was Cassavetes’ first studio picture and only his second feature film as director, following his thrilling debut with 1959’s Shadows. There’s no coincidence that an attack on the idea of selling out and ‘betraying your indie roots’ comes in the midst of Cassavetes’ first studio picture. It’s surely not an accident that Ghost’s actual name is John, either.

But Too Late Blues is far from Cassavetes selling out then chastising himself for it. It’s an honest attempt to make the kind of film he wanted to, but all within the constraints of a studio. Whilst he might not have been successful in every respect, Cassevetes did manage to make a wonderful picture.

Over the twenty-five years that followed Too Late Blues and his second studio film, the next year’s A Child is Waiting, Cassavetes forged an extraordinary career in which his name became synonymous with American independent filmmaking. Many of his films are rightly regarded as masterpieces and when, a few years ago I was asked for a top ten list of films, I gave his 1974 picture A Woman Under the Influence a prime spot. And I still would.

You can see the roots of films like A Woman Under the Influence or Minnie and Moskowitz in Too Late Blues. There are even hints of the characters to come, with Jess Polanski (Stella Stevens) proving to be something of a proto-Mabel or Minnie.

We are first introduced to Jess as she struggles to keep a grip on herself. Later on, she has a short period in which things appear to go a little better for her, but there is tragic shapre to her story, all foreshadowed in the first scene. Jess always feels a little on the edge, a delicate branch swaying in the wind, creaking and always threatening to snap. The blustery wind is provided by the men in her life.

Jess is easily as fascinating as Ghost, if not more so, and the complexity in her behaviour and motivation is a large part of what makes the film so compelling. There’s a delicate power to her character that really comes over clearly. Elegant, simple lines that are as stripped down as, “I’m just me, Ghost” can carry a great deal of weight and significance thanks to the intelligent, multidimensional writing. There’s a truth to what we’re seeing and a sincerity in the emotion that renders it deeply affecting.

Cassavetes always seemed to be striving for truth in cinema and while he appears to have attacked Too Late Blues with more technical rigour than his début feature there is still a sense that he wants to keep things ‘real’ and loose. Characters often talk over each other and dialogue weaves around in much the same way as the characters do, and the blocking of the actors and camera often appears to be an afterthought.

Cassavetes’ filmmaking has often been compared to jazz, and that seems especially appropriate here given the subject. But this film is not like a lengthy live recording of Coleman freely improvising but more like a crafted, melancholy and beautiful Mingus album cut. This is Cassavetes’ filmmaking at its most controlled.

This latest Blu-ray of Too Late Blues from Masters of Cinema features an excellent transfer of the film, from a print which seems to have survived in very good condition. There are visible signs of damage in the source but they are very minor and certainly not a distraction.

While there may be no brilliant whites or deep blacks to this image, the picture has a wide gradient of greys. There is also a thin and consistent layer of grain present throughout.

The audio track, which features some wonderful music from David Raskin, is mono and surprisingly crisp, and the dialogue is always clearly understandable.

Extras are a little light, with the disc offering only a video discussion with critic David Cairns. This is a good addition to the feature, however, and there is also an excellent booklet, including writing on the film and a particularly terse interview with Stella Stevens. This is a fine release of a wonderful early Cassavetes flick.

Too Late Blues is out now.