Last year I enjoyed writing about a relatively obscure jazz film, All Night Long, so I was excited a couple of weeks ago when I discovered another interesting one of the same genre. Too Late Blues (1961) stars Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens, which might make it sound superficial at first (were Frankie and Annette not available?), but it’s actually an incredibly raw, naturalistic, and adult film for that era—not surprising given that it’s also the second feature directed by the legendary John Cassavetes. Too Late Blues isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s fascinating, partially for its depiction of the music industry, but mostly for the ways in which it challenges conventional notions of masculinity.
Cassavetes is often regarded as the father of American Independent Film, one of the boldest and most distinctive directors in movie history. He was also a fine actor, best remembered for key roles in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). His first feature as a director was the landmark film, Shadows (1959), a low budget, experimental movie that dealt with interracial romance and jazz. Cassavetes and the actors developed the story through a series of improvisations, and the final film, with its primitive production values, is unapologetically amateurish. It’s an important film historically, an American counterpart to the French New Wave—deliberately unpolished and aesthetically reckless.
While Shadows isn’t a great film in any formal sense, I’ve always admired it for what it is—Clerks for the Beat Generation. But to be honest, despite the enormity of Cassavetes’s importance and influence, I’ve never been able to warm up to the films that made him a legend—Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), or A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Luckily for me, Too Late Blues comes before Cassavetes perfected his style. Like one of those ill-fitting, early movies of a master—Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus and David Lynch’s Dune—Too Late Blues is a hybrid, a studio movie with charismatic stars and decent production values, but also subversive, slowly paced, and emotionally brutal.
Bobby Darin plays the lead, a jazz pianist nicknamed “Ghost” who falls in love with a singer played by Stella Stevens. Both actors seem unusual choices for Cassavetes. He would later rely on actors like Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Gena Rowlands—the kinds of performers who held nothing back emotionally. Darin, on the other hand, was a pop star, only three years removed from singing “Splish Splash” on American Bandstand and Stevens was on her way to playing a series of thankless roles in movies like the Elvis Presley vehicle, Girls! Girls! Girls!, and Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor. It’s hard to imagine casting Darin and Stevens for the roles in Too Late Blues, but both of them are exceptional.
In the film, Darin is a study in contradictions. As a singer, he was known for his energy and attitude—what they once called brash but now call swagger. It takes a special combination of versatility, fearlessness, and audacity to pull off songs of such disparate styles as “Splish Splash,” “Mack the Knife,” and “If I Were a Carpenter.” However, despite his boundless confidence, Darin’s physical appearance told a different story. As a leading man of below average height with a weak chin, his body didn’t match the personality he projected, and in an era still dominated by square-jawed, artificially constructed movie stars like Rock Hudson, Darin made an unorthodox leading man.
But that sense of contrast between attitude and physique reinforces the way Cassavetes uses Ghost to play with the conventions of masculinity. Despite Darin’s small stature, Ghost is the leader and creative force of his jazz band, writing their music and making career and booking decisions. Ghost is talented, but he is so committed to not “selling out” that he only books the band for non-commercial gigs, playing for non-profits and such. And when challenged about the music, Ghost defends his choices, fighting with a music producer during one of their recording sessions. Throughout the first half of the movie, Ghost repeatedly “performs” this very conventional brand of masculinity as the “Alpha Dog” wherever he goes.
The same conventional notions of manhood define the beginning of his relationship with Stevens’s character, Jess Polanski. When he first encounters her at a party, Ghost’s agent is belittling her, so Ghost comes to her “rescue” and the two of them escape to Ghost’s favorite bar. In case anyone misses the symbolism, he even nicknames this damsel in distress, “Princess,” and he shows off for her by mixing drinks for them behind the bar—his own special concoction. All of these scenes place Ghost in a traditional role, doing much the same thing that most other conventional icons of masculinity from that era might’ve done in the same situation.
However, Cassavetes systematically begins to tear down this precarious and ironic image of projected manhood. When Ghost and Princess return to her room, she assumes they’re going to have sex, but Ghost demurs, perhaps in part because Jess is drunk. Then, after the group successfully records Ghost’s new song with Jess providing vocals, Ghost abdicates his leadership role, cavalierly leaving all the negotiations to his unscrupulous agent. When his agent later tells him that he couldn’t get a good deal for Jess, Ghost doesn’t rush to defend his “Princess”—instead he has almost no reaction.
At this point, Cassavetes brings in Ghost’s foil—an Irish-American bar patron, Tommy Sheehan, who represents the ultimate stereotype of an early-1960’s American man. Tommy keeps watching Jess, leering at her while simultaneously insulting all musicians for using heroin and having relationships with African-Americans. Tommy’s behavior isn’t all that surprising. One of the more popular models for American masculinity has always been the mythical “self made man.” In particular, by the mid-20th Century, those who were trying to lay claim to this self made man image often did so at the expense of others—particularly, in this case, women and African-Americans.
So Cassavetes uses Tommy to challenge Ghost, and in the moment of truth, Ghost refuses to fight. Interestingly, Darin doesn’t play the scene as a moment of cowardice—more one of choice. Ghost doesn’t fight back, though Jess does, and Tommy ultimately throws Ghost down to the floor where he lands at Jess’s feet. His unwillingness to “perform” this violent rite of manhood in the bar leads to his breakup with Jess and his falling out with the band.
When we next see him, time has passed and Ghost is now playing piano as accompaniment for a woman named “Countess.” No longer the Alpha Dog, Ghost is essentially a kept man, and his once promising career is spiraling downward. He finally leaves Countess and tries to make amends, discovering Jess in a bar, where she is working as a prostitute. Ghost awkwardly forces the two “Johns” she is entertaining out of the bar and tries to reconcile with her, but she’s not interested. However, he takes her to where his former bandmates are playing and tries to apologize to them. They, too, aren’t interested, but as they start to play one of their old songs and as Jess begins to hum along with it, Cassavetes leaves us with the uneasy feel of a happy Hollywood ending.
So what’s so cool about all this? Based on the pattern of the story, I suppose someone could cynically argue that the movie only reinforces all the negative and traditional images of masculinity. Ghost is “weak” and everyone suffers, but when he finally exerts himself and rescues the girl, all is well. That would make the whole picture pretty worthless. But what makes the film different is that it’s not that simple.
Cassavetes knows that mid-20th Century manhood is an arbitrary construction—a phony collection of actions and attitudes that often rely on violence, misogyny, and racism. So he gives us Ghost—an artist figure—who tries to imitate society’s expectations for manhood, but who, when pushed, is unwilling to fully play the game. Just as he is unwilling to compromise his music, he’s unwilling to compromise his identity. Unfortunately for Ghost, society punishes him for his transgressions.
Significantly though, when he reunites with Jess and the other musicians, he does so not out of a position of strength, but rather out of weakness and humility. And the thing that finally brings them all together isn’t any act of machismo on Ghost’s part, but rather the purity of their music.
While the film isn’t perfect, it’s clear that Cassavetes is playing with some ambitious ideas here. For a Hollywood studio film, this is pretty subversive stuff. And it certainly lays the groundwork for a filmmaker who, like Ghost, might be floundering at the time, but would soon find his way.
 While Darin had a short career and Stevens was rarely given challenging material, both had potential. Stevens was excellent in Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and Darin would receive an Oscar nomination for Captain Newman, M.D. (1963), and he was riveting as an American Nazi opposite Sidney Poitier in Pressure Point (1962).
 For more on this subject, see Kimmel, Michael. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: The Free Press, 1996.