Catching up with Cassavetes: #2 – “Too Late Blues” (1961)

movie-too-late-blues-back-by-john-cassavetes-s3-mask9Two down, ten to go. As I have stated at the start of my previous “Catching up with Cassavetes” entry – in where I swooned over his debut film, Shadows – my knowledge of this renowned pioneer of independent cinema is far from extensive. In fact, as the title of this post suggests, I have indeed only seen two of his twelve films thus far. And while his second film didn’t awe me from start to finnish like his first did, it didn’t exactly leave me with a bad taste in my mouth either.

Cassavetes’ second film is also his first attempt at working within the Hollywood system. The story, which he was given one of two writing credits for – the other belonging to television jobber Richard Carr – is about a jazz musician unwilling to sell out, or it’s about a jazz musician self destructing in the wake of the mishandling of his insecurities, or it’s about the duality of relationships between extreme love and extreme loathing that is found in both bandmates and lovers, or it’s about the music industry. Whatever its about, one things for sure, it could have benefitted from picking a focus and sticking with it. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with multilayered stories, but in this case it seems like Cassavetes was biting off a bit more than he could chew.

Don’t misunderstand me, this film is in no way a disaster. In fact, the standout moments alone are enough to make this it a worthwhile venture. There are moments evoking the independent free flowing spirit of where Shadows left off, such as the opening scene in where our protagonist’s jazz band is performing for an orphanage. This scene plays like an impromptu concert within the actual film. It’s playful, seemingly candid, and managed to immediately put a smile upon my face.

There’s the charismatic lead, played exceedingly well by real life talented musician and bizarro Peter Sellers look-a-like, Bobby Darin. Bobby, who is mostly known for his diverse musicianship, apparently also has a knack for pulling off a wide range of emotions. From cool and reserved, to humiliated and shy, to angry and aggressive, Bobby scales these range of emotions as if he were trying to out act (insert the name of whomever you feel is the most diverse and talented actor here). Plus, he has that added little something that always keeps me engrossed in the story, regardless of what melodramatic and sloppy turns it ultimately yields.

Another standout moment comes much later in the film when Cassavetes takes us on a detour from his mostly non-Cassavete-ish smooth and polished camera work to let his indie auteur sensibilities come out and play. Late in the film, when in order to echo the heightened emotions of the drama, Cassavetes does something wonderful. He switches styles.

He goes from seemingly smooth and more traditional Hollywood cookie-cutter filming, to that of an immediate handheld and unpredictable form. The impact of this change in style is impossible to ignore, and when it happens, it automatically becomes one of those wow moments. The kind that seem to exist for no other reason then to remind me what it is I love about watching film in the first place. And, as if that moment wasn’t good enough, it’s immediately followed up by a fantastically unexpected POV angle from inside a sink drain, as Stella Stevens‘ Jess Polanski character is trying, and failing, to commit suicide.

What it boils down to is this. Cassavetes’ second film, when seen as a collection of standout moments is well worth any film fan’s time. However, as a fully realized multi-layered story, it completely misses the mark.


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Categories: Reviews


  1. Catching up with Cassavetes: #8 – “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976) | - November 28, 2014

    […] up with Cassavetes: #1 – “Shadows” (1959) Catching up with Cassavetes: #2 – “Too Late Blues” (1961) Catching up with Cassavetes: #3 – “A Child is Waiting” (1963) Catching up with […]

  2. Catching up with Cassavetes: #10 – “Gloria” (1980) | - December 16, 2014

    […] up with Cassavetes: #1 – “Shadows” (1959) Catching up with Cassavetes: #2 – “Too Late Blues” (1961) Catching up with Cassavetes: #3 – “A Child is Waiting” (1963) Catching up with Cassavetes: #4 […]

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