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Too Late Blues (Blu-ray Review)

4 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Bobby Darin, Stella Stevens, Everett Chambers.

Compared to marketing the easily peggable A Girl Named Tamiko, Hatari!, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Errand Boy and Girls! Girls! Girls!, the Don Drapers on Paramount's 1962 sales team must have had a grand old time figuring out how to sell the second feature from actor-turned-director John Cassavetes after his landmark indie breakthrough with 1959's Shadows (an acknowledged seminal movie in the screen upbringing of Martin Scorsese).
Cassavetes wasn’t very comfortable, at least in the early ‘60s, directing for major studios, and Too Late Blues is usually kind of viewed as one of his career aberrations (kind of like what Spartacus is for Stanley Kubrick, though let's not push that analogy too far). But you can't be a Stella Stevens fan without having at least some affection for it, even if the continuity of the script (co-written with Richard Carr) begins to scrap A-to-B trajectories as the narrative progresses, resembling something closer to O-to-T with some of its chronology leaps in the later going. And commercially speaking, the story was never going to be much of a crowd pleaser, what with its fairly downbeat look at jazz musicians living on the financial edge. If drug use is never a factor here (other than in one loudmouth's throwaway false accusation in one scene), booze is another story.

Mississippi-born born Stevens could do comedy and drama and was gorgeous (body-beautiful, dimples-beautiful) to boot. But perhaps because she had been a Playboy Playmate (good eye, Hugh) or had launched herself by playing Apassionata Von Climax in the screen version of Li’l Abner, she never got taken as seriously in Hollywood as she should have been despite a long career, at least in proportion to her talent. Her two hallmarks were as the almost apparitional “Miss Purdy” (another Stella) opposite Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor and as the sweetheart of a hooker in Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (one of those gentle-spirited exercises that Peckinpah detractors would never bother to see — after, of course, writing him off as nothing but a huckster of screen violence). But there was also Vincente Minnelli’s The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Stevens’ sexy ditsi-ness in the first and best “Matt Helm” spoof (The Silencers) — and to these, we should probably add her performance in the drug drama Synanon (though, frankly, it’s been too long since I’ve seen it to have an opinion).

Blues came before any of these, a few months before Stevens was one of the co-stars who gave Elvis’ Girls! Girls! Girls! its title. Cast as a striking male magnet for the wrong kind of males, she captures our attention with her back before we can even view her head-on. But it turns out that this character has such an inferiority complex that she can’t even mention her own unglamorous name — Jess Polanski — without flinching. In the process of having her singing talents put down by her heel of a manager (Everett Chambers), she meets a piano player/jazz combo leader (Bobby Darin, a last-minute casting replacement) who wants to lay and record music his way. At the time Stevens was hired for her role, Montgomery Clift was slated to be her co-star, but he was apparently too sick to do the role. Darin-for-Clift doesn’t sound like that much of a trade, but by this time, Clift’s life was a shambles, and Drain was beginning to receive serious attention as an actor (the following year, he’d get an Oscar nomination for Captain Newman, M.D.).

In a way (I’m thinking here of Clift’s pummeling by yahoos in Elia Kazan’s Wild River), this is a late-Clift kind of role because in one scene, Darin can’t quite rise to the pugilistic occasion defending Stevens’ honor in a barroom altercation involving a drunken blowhard played by, of all people, Vince Edwards (already in his 5-year run on TV’s “Ben Casey”). Given that Darin was predominantly a musical genius of all genres, his acting here is on the high side of decent. But the truth is that with his rather runty stature and fading hairline, the camera didn’t particularly like him, and by the end of the decade, Darin had resorted to billing himself as “Robert” in a futile attempt to resurrect his already faded screen career.

No great shakes as storytelling but fairly compelling on an observational level consistent with Cassavetes’ usual let’s-try-it-and-see-what-happens style, Blues is usually not the same movie whenever Stevens is off screen. Hollywood hand Lionel Lindon is not the kind of cinematographer with whom Cassavetes usually worked (he got an Oscar for shooting Around the World in 80 Days), but he pulls off an impressive feat here by making Stevens look worn and beautiful on an Olive release that looks the way I remember Paramount black-and-white movies looking in the early-to-mid ‘60s (though Hud and In Harm’s Way are in classes by themselves). A few actors identified with other Cassavetes-directed movies are fairly prominent here: Val Avery, Seymour Cassel (who’d get an Oscar nomination six years later for the director’s Faces) and Rupert Crosse, who had been an acting factor in Shadows. Crosse, who died young, would later earn an Oscar nomination, too: opposite Steve McQueen in 1969’s The Reivers, directed by Mark Rydell.

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