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Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Too Late Blues’ (John Cassavetes, 1961)

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Too Late Blues, the 1961 film directed by John Cassavetes, has a measure of personality that pops with emotion despite its tampering (courtesy of conventional editing and the pressures of the star system). While other films produced within the studio system share themes and archetypes with Too Late Blues, none quite achieve the honest brutality of Cassavetes’ fractured visual style and bitter script. But, for all the good that rises to the surface, the stranglehold of producer interference unravels the film, painting a much uglier portrait of love and relationships than any other Cassavetes film.

In a refusal to compromise a blues musician, Ghost (Bobby Darin) would rather play for empty crowds in the park than to sold out clubs. His music has integrity and he won’t sacrifice that for anyone or anything. At a party, he meets the beautiful and psychologically wounded Jess Polanski (Stella Stevens), another aspiring singer, and falls for her wounded charms. Romance interferes with Ghost’s music, and the sparks between him and Jess quickly turn to fire, tearing their lives apart.

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Due to Darin’s incredible likeability, Ghost has the natural appeal of an uncompromising sheriff willing to lay his life on the line for his beliefs. This brings him more heartache than success, but Ghost would rather starve than give up what he believes in. Darin’s performance has a playful swagger as he charms his way through different social interactions with ease; viewers might want to like Ghost because many like to believe they have the same type of integrity.

The brutality of Ghost’s lie to himself (and the world) hits like a sledgehammer. His persona contrasts strongly with the diminutive Benny, Jess and his agent, making him seem like a pillar of moral goodness. As Benny says, “Keep em insecure and you’ll get the best.” Ghost works to prop Jess up; he says that he believes in her and wants her to succeed. But then, he tears her down. Ghost pulls Jess into a zone of comfort and true vulnerability, and when she undresses for him, he tears her apart. Screaming and grabbing, Ghost insults her morality and integrity, only to bring her back for a kiss goodnight to say he will see her tomorrow. The whiplash dissonance of this moment reels again and again. The need to preserve the matinee idol appeal of Darin interferes with this being anything but vulgar. Darin’s performance works remarkably well, but it seems that the studio would rather endorse psychopathic whiplash than indulge in Ghost’s obvious emotional instability and moral weakness.

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After Jess and Ghost break up, Darin’s character takes up an affair with an older woman and patron of the arts. The venomous conversations between the new couple could melt stainless steel. The way a younger man looks at an older woman does not have the same equivalent with the genders reversed. Matched with a woman who will fight back and tell him things he might not want to hear, Ghost recoils as if faced with a monstrous hag. The look he gives her after she confronts him about his lack of talent holds more than just contempt for her words, but contempt for her age, her wrinkles and her experience. Ghost feels shame for ever touching her, for even gracing her with his presence. She reminds him of Jess, if only because she represents everything Jess is not.

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Ghost loves Jess for her desperation, and once she starts to veer into stability, she suddenly becomes unworthy. Ghost punishes her whenever she starts to relax, taking full advantage of her insecurity and vulnerability. If Jess finds confidence and happiness, she becomes boring and disposable. In Cassavetes’ independent work, this dynamic feels more palatable. The men are as damaged as the women they love, and the films are more about toxic relationships than one-sided systems of abuse. The poetry of people who don’t know how to love each other has more room for the nuances of sex and relationship than the story of one abusive man who, with a little irony, sees himself as entitled. The vulgarity of how Ghost emerges unscathed haunts the film, and while he has brutally dark moments, Too Late Blues paints him as a sort of twisted savior for Jess. It doesn’t matter that Ghost will punish her for not fulfilling his desires, as Cassavetes still guides the viewer towards rooting for him. “She was doomed anyway,” and in the film’s final moments, Jess’ options are narrowed to a razor’s edge: be with Ghost or die.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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