Historically, John Cassavetes might be the first American actor-director of what we now term “independent films.” That is, Cassavetes was a compelling performer (Edge of the City, Our Virgin Island, The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby) more interested in crafting movies on his own terms, and he did so with such items as Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Husbands, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. His wife was Gena Rowlands, complimented by some as the greatest American actress not to have an Academy Award. Cassavetes starred in the TV series Johnny Staccato in ’59-’60. Rowlands guested.)
Too Late Blues (1961) was Cassavetes’ second feature as director. Bobby Darin plays John “Ghost” Wakefield, jazz pianist heading up a nominally-talented group of musicians playing small gigs and benefits in parks. At a party he meets Jess (Stella Stevens), a self-described amateur songstress whose agent is the same as Ghost’s, the weasly Benny Flowers (Everett Chambers). Ghost wants to add Jess to his quintet despite her protestations: “My name’s Polanski. That’s my name. Jessica Polanski. And don’t start telling me how much you can do for me or my career ‘cause there isn’t any career, and you can’t do a thing for me. Understand?” Such sentiments only endear her to him and he convinces her to join his quintet for an unexpected recording session that just might land them a hit. But life throws Ghost, Jess and the rest of the band a curve ball. A pool hall brawl initiated by the brutish Tommy (Vince Edwards) reveals a singularly damaging character flaw that sabotages Ghost’s relationship with both Jess and the band. It is painful to watch.
The film is emblematic of its era: musicians, especially the jazz types, are labeled “dope fiends” with needles in their pockets with which to inject girls. The band members wear ties during performance and make it a point to maintain their natty attire at an after-hours party.
Too Late Blues is a successful early attempt by Bobby Darin, the teen singing idol (“Splish Splash,” “Mack the Knife,” “Beyond the Sea,” “Dream Lover “) to succeed as an actor. As evidence of that and Cassavetes’ script, he doesn’t even sing. (The following year Darin would give an outstanding performance as a G.I. on the Siegfried Line with Steve McQueen in Hell is for Heroes. In 1964 he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his mental patient in Captain Newman, M.D.)
Like Darin, Stella Stevens was transforming herself from a blonde bombshell (Playboy Playmate of the Month, January, 1960)) into a more than capable actress and occasional comedienne. In 1964 she received exemplary reviews for her three-episode guest spot on TV’s medical show hit, Ben Casey, in which Vince Edwards had his career-defining role.
Too Late Blues is a small film, but it provides a career preview for Darin, Stevens and Edwards, a look at director Cassavetes’ early style, and a peek at a time between the beat and hippie generations.