Too Late Blues (1961) was John Cassavetes’ directorial debut. He regarded it as a failure, which might be why it was so hard to find prior to its DVD release in 2012. Critics didn’t agree with him then, and most still don’t, but I see his point. The film looks very much like a determined effort to reproduce the dissolute grittiness of ‘40s noir that emerges so naturally in films such as Singapore, Gilda, and The Killers but updated to 1961. The “effort” shows far too much in Too Late Blues, which is to say the movie’s style comes off as affected, and never more so than during attempts to be socially edgy: attempts that miss in any number of ways even by 1961 standards. Regardless, the movie is not without merit. The themes are interesting and there are some good acting turns. The movie stars Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens.
Stella Stevens is a better actress than most of her vehicles give her any chance to show. Sometimes she is the only redeeming element in a movie, as in The Silencers, a spy “comedy” from 1966 in which she provides the only genuine humor. My favorite movie of hers is The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), but she is probably best known from The Poseidon Adventure (1972). In Too Late Blues (1961) she has an early (and, as it would turn out, rare) chance to show some mettle. She also looks stunning in the picture. I’ve met Stella Stevens a few times at conventions in years past. She is charming and unpretentious. We talked about her fun novel Razzle Dazzle with its very Elvis-like protagonist (Stella worked with Elvis in the movie Girls! Girls! Girls!), but we also touched on this film.
I never met the versatile performer Bobby Darin (1936-1973), who recorded a number of hit pop singles starting in the late 1950s, but I nonetheless have a Bobby Darin story. My father was a builder, and in in 1962 he was building houses in Brookside NJ. Mostly they were ranch houses of somewhat less than 2000 square feet (185 square meters) on one acre lots; they sold in the $30,000 to $35,000 range, which was on the higher end of moderate at the time – nice but not extravagant. (The same houses today resell mostly between $400,000 and $500,000 unless upgraded significantly.) One evening my dad came home and said “This guy came on the tract this morning saying he was looking for a new house for his mother. He had a real chip on his shoulder. He said, ‘I’m Bobby Darin.’ I held out my hand and told him, ‘I’m Dick Bellush.’ He said again, ‘I’m Bobby Darin, the singer.’ I shrugged and told him ‘I’m Dick Bellush, the builder.’ He got all huffy and insulted.” My dad, of course, had no clue who Bobby Darin was. My sister, however, who was 12 at the time, was losing it at this point. My dad shrugged again. Bobby Darin never did buy one his houses.
The plot (minor *spoilers*): A jazz musician who calls himself Ghost (Bobby Darin) takes his music seriously. He won’t compromise his artistic integrity for commercial success even if it means he and his band play charities, festivals, parks, tiny clubs, and old age homes for scale or for free. When offered a chance to record, he insists on playing only what he wants. Ghost meets Jess “Princess” Polanski (Stella Stevens) at a party where hears her sing; she is more than the floozy she chooses to be, but doesn’t have the self-confidence to act like anything else. She and Ghost have the same agent: a weasel of a man named Benny who deeply resents Ghost for being a better musician and for effortlessly winning the interest of Jess. He arranges for Ghost to be humiliated in front of her, after which Ghost acts like such a jackass that he ruins things with Jess. Ghost breaks up the band and pursues the dollar by acting as a gigolo to a wealthy woman who likes and supports jazz musicians, though he insists he still doesn’t compromise his music. There are other losses of integrity one can have than artistic ones, however, and perhaps those are the more important ones. When Ghost begins to suspect this, it might or might not be too late for him and for Jess, who has abandoned singing in favor of picking up middle age men in bars for a living.
Despite its flaws the movie is worth a look, not least for its glimpse into that strange period of time when the ‘50s were over but the ‘60s, as we usually think of them, had not yet arrived. As for its central question of whether it is ever too late to recover from our past decisions, sometimes it really is. Sometimes not. Knowing the difference can be tricky. So is knowing whether or not to try.