Made in 1961 for Paramount after the success of his 1959 directorial debut Shadows, John Cassavetes' Too Late Blues follows the exploits of a jazz musician named John 'Ghost' Wakefield (Bobby Darin) who leads a group of musicians with the intention of never selling out or compromising. He and his band are in this for the music, not for financial gain - that is until Ghost meets a beautiful singer named Jess (Stella Stevens). He falls for her fast and hard and before you know it he's trying to figure out how to make her a part of his love life and his musical career. She joins the band and things are starting to pick up for them until there's an altercation at a pool hall one night and Ghost winds up splitting from the group and his lady, who has a past that comes to light, all of this much to the dismay of his manager, Benny (Everett Chambers). Ghost eventually takes solace in the arms of a well to do older woman named (Marilyn Clark).
Essentially a cautionary tale about the dangers of selling out, Too Late Blues isn't the film that Cassavetes is remembered for simply because as interesting as it is, it simply isn't as good as some of his better films. Like a lot of Cassavetes' pictures it's more concerned with the characters and how they interact with one another than with an A to B storyline and in that area it's quite interesting. The performances are strong, even sad in spots. Bobby Darin proves to be a pretty decent leading man here and he makes his character's flaws a very important part of his performance. His Ghost is not a strong heroic type and it's interesting to see just how quickly, once he gets a taste of success, he changes his tune and lets go of the integrity that had been so important to him prior. He seems to want to be wanted, we see this in his first relationship with Jess and we see it in his later relationship with Marilyn Clark's wealthy older woman. His flaws make him human. Everett Chambers steals the show as Ghost's manager, his role just a supporting one but no less impressive or important, while Stella Stevens oozes sexuality more than she does actual love or affection. Marilyn Clark is also very effective in her part, and the cast overall is very strong here.
As far as the narrative goes, however, Too Late Blues isn't exactly riveting, nor is it as energetic and unhinged feeling as some of Cassavetes' other pictures. It tends to dwell on scenes that don't warrant as much attention as they're given here and there are a lot of scenes of the band playing that, while cool to look at, don't always help the plot all that much. You get the impression here that Cassavetes was still definitely trying to find his style and his 'voice' behind the camera - sometimes he nails it, sometimes he doesn't and he doesn't quite show the same sort of penchant for controlled chaos here that he would go on to show later on in his career. As disjointed and lacking in fluidity as it can be, you do get the impression that the director was working on material which meant a great deal to him and telling a story to which he had a certain amount of personal attachment.
David Raskin's score is quite impressive and suits the material well and you've got to admire the camera work more often than not for using some interesting angles and capturing some interesting locations too. The film does kind of bounce around a bit and has some interesting and unexpected moments scattered throughout - established fans of Cassavetes the director specifically will no doubt find much to appreciate about this picture, as will jazz aficionados who will appreciate the soundtrack and some interesting cameos, but it's probably not the best starting point for those looking to delve into the work that he did behind the camera.
Presented in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer for Too Late Blues looks good, but not great. Some minor print damage is present throughout and you get the impression that more cleanup work could have been done and might have helped things a bit. Detail isn't bad, and whatever softness is present, and there is some, seems to stem to the original photography and whatever source material was available here. Contrast is generally good when the film is taking place out of doors and not quite as strong when the action takes place inside. There are no problems with the authoring, the image is free of edge enhancement, noise reduction and compression artifacts.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack is pretty good, with the music coming through nice and clearly and without any serious hiss or distortion issues to note. Dialogue is crisp and easy to understand and follow and the levels seem properly balanced throughout. Limitations of the source material are obvious sometimes, but you can't fault the disc for the fact that this older low budget film sounds like an older low budget film. No alternate language dubs are provided nor are there any subtitles or closed captions offered.
Olive Films supplies a static menu and chapter selection but not actual supplements, unfortunately.
Too Late Blues isn't going to stand as the high point of John Cassavetes' career but it's an interesting film with a great soundtrack, some excellent camera work and some through provoking moments. Olive Films' DVD doesn't contain any extras at all but it looks and sounds pretty good, making this one recommended for established fans of Cassavetes' output, a good rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.