Shadows (1959)

Review #1,227

Director:  John Cassavetes
Cast:  Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd 
Plot:  Cassavetes' jazz-scored improvisational film explores interracial friendships and relationships in Beat-Era (1950s) New York City.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Pasinetti Award (Venice).  Nom. for 3 BAFTAs - Best Film, Most Promising Newcomer (x2).
Runtime:  87min
Rating:  Unrated, but likely to be PG13
Source: Jumer Productions

The trouble with you is, you have a case of self-induced hysteria every time you hear the word existentialism.

What a directorial debut by John Cassavetes.  The father of the post-1960s American independent cinema movement has been widely regarded as one of the most important cinematic voices to come out from the States, greatly inspiring such stalwarts as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman. 

A truly independent film in its most unadulterated form, Shadows paved way for a new kind of cinema, one characterized by a DIY filmmaking rhetoric, but without any restrictions of any sort, other than that of budget.  Cassavetes sought for realism through honest, improvised acting, while preserving a raw aesthetic that he would not polish. 

Shot in 16mm in black-and-white, Shadows is uneven with plenty of rough edges, but that is what makes it such an eye-opener.  At the cusp of the French New Wave that would inevitably set the world of cinema alight, Cassavetes’ work shares a similar attitude, but with one obvious difference: while the likes of Godard and co. would innovate cinema from a critic’s lens, Cassavetes did so by privileging the art of acting. 

Shadows is a testament to the auteur theory, as Cassavetes' body of work would later attest, which largely features films made with total directorial control, and no studio backing.  Such movies as Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977) mark Cassavetes as an uncompromising and singular artiste. 

But with Shadows, we witness the birth of his ideologies as he experiments with improvisation.  Tracking a young light-skinned woman who finds romance with a white guy, the film puts racism at the forefront when the latter meets the woman's dark-skinned brother, triggering discomfort and trouble. 

There's a kind of latent uneasiness borne out of racism, but Cassavetes' camera captures the intense emotions of joy, anger and sadness of his characters that it all seems natural, as if taking the form of a documentary of private lives, thus mitigating any complications of screen racism.

At its heart, Shadows is like a celebration of spontaneity, accompanied by a heavy jazz-infused score, not unlike the film's free-wheeling form – ever so malleable, and ever so free-spirited.  Cassavetes announced what a talent he was with this one, winning the Pasinetti Award at the Venice Film Festival.

Verdict:  Cassavetes’ landmark debut is raw and uneven, but unmistakably an independent film in its most unadulterated form.  


Click here to go back to Central Station.



Popular Posts