This Paramount release was John Cassavetes' first experience of directing a major Hollywood release, following his initial independent success with SHADOWS in 1959. The script, co-written over a single weekend by Cassavetes with Richard Carr, a staff writer of his JOHNNY STACCATO teleseries, is a very loose account of a jazz combo headed by John "Ghost" Wakefield, played by Bobby Darin. Ghost and his band are interested only in following their muse, which has left them without representation and playing in children's homes and public parks. One night at a party, Ghost makes the acquaintance of Jessica Polanski (Stella Stevens), a beautiful honey-voiced blonde who is taking the abuse of her agent Benny Flowers (outstanding work by Everett Chambers), and manages to pick up the agent and the girl, whose melismatic style of "no-singing singing" redirects Ghost toward a record contract and a short-lived flirtation with actual professionalism.
TOO LATE BLUES reportedly went into production only two weeks after it was hastily written, and it has a first-draft feel about it. It's got a jazz combo (with Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel making his screen debut on bass) but it's singularly unconvincing as a jazz picture, so much so that David Raksin's score ends up being called "blues" in the dialogue and in the title. Cassavetes himself later disowned the picture, which he wrote with his wife Gena Rowlands in mind for Jessica, claiming that it was not only "unfinished" but that Paramount monkeyed with it, and it's easy to see that some shots and scenes were cut-off at the knees. This is not to say there isn't some terrific filmmaking on display; the three-dimensional camera dollying through the early party scene is most impressive, and the scenes of volatile camaraderie in the pool room of Greek immigrant Nick Bobolenos (Nick Dennis, the "3-D Pow!" guy from KISS ME DEADLY) show us exactly where 75% of MEAN STREETS came from. The film also features what is likely Stella Stevens' finest performance, chronologically situated between the Paramount bookends of GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. It's obvious that Jerry Lewis studied this film intently; Stella Purdy and Jessica Polanski are both dreamy, jukebox-leaning girls who can be found admiring the pianist prowess of their boyfriends in afterhours nightclubs while sucking on cigarettes, and there's even a proto-Alaskan Polar Bear Heater scene in which Bobby Darin seeks to impress her by concocting the cocktail to end all cocktails. But something about Stevens' performance here feels particularly candid, vulnerable and exposed; she gives the film something I think might have been beyond Gena Rowlands' grasp at that point in her filmography, though I'm sure she would have taken beautifully to Lionel Lindon's velvety monochrome photography. Darin feels miscast as the bandleader; he's a star, but he has the most passive personality onscreen and it's hard to figure why so many Alpha Male types are following him around. Vince Edwards, Val Avery, Ivan Dixon and June Wilkinson are among the supporting players.
I'll be writing about the film at greater length in a separate review for the July 2012 issue of SIGHT & SOUND.
Viewed via Olive Films' DVD (also available on Blu-ray), which streets on May 29.