Shadows (1959): United States – directed by John Cassavetes

Not rated by the MPAA – contains some mild language and mature themes

Shadows is a movie way ahead of its time.  Or, perhaps there has never been a time for a movie like this.  Either way, it was a dramatic directorial debut for John Cassavetes (best known by me for his role as Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby) and an important milestone in independent American filmmaking.

Shadows reminded me of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless in a lot of ways.  Released a year apart (Shadows had been partially shot a couple years before its release) they both share a lack of any concrete narrative structure.  And, like Breathless, Shadows‘ style and mere existence are more important than its plot.  However, what makes Shadows different is that it deals with some weighty themes that were rarely discussed back in the late fifties.

There’s not much of a plot to be found.  The film centers around three siblings in New York City.  One of them, Hugh (played by Hugh Hurd), used to be a fairly well-known singer but is now relegated to introducing the dancing girls at clubs.  Hugh’s brother Ben (Ben Carruthers) is a struggling trumpet player in a jazz band.  Their sister Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) is a newcomer to the high-brow scene and is just starting to get around.

You might have noticed that all the main characters share the same first name as the respective actors.  I doubt this was an accident, since the movie says “Improvised directed by John Cassavetes.”  Much of the film is improvisation, actually, with Cassavetes using people he knew in certain roles.  As a result the characters sort of meander through the film, each with his or her own slight storyline and a common sibling theme among the three of them.

Hugh is stuck with his manager, trying to get back in the limelight as a singer.  Ben hangs around some thuggish guys who like to pick up random girls each night.  Lelia’s story is by far the most complex and interesting.  She is impressed by the smart folks in her social circle and ends up with Tony (Anthony Ray) one day for a walk in the park.  They connect emotionally and romantically, and this ends up with them connecting in another way.  The result of their “connection” and the ensuing meeting between Tony and Lelia’s brothers is what grants the movie its most complex themes.

The film is one of the only ones I’ve seen to deal with some of the repercussions of casual sex.  The hurt, confusion, and resulting volcano of random emotions that Lelia experiences after the fact are rarely discussed in cinema, not to mention films from 1959.  Here it is handled quite elegantly and without any sort of moralizing.

The second theme is perhaps the more important, especially for America as a country in the years prior to the civil rights movement.  You see, Lelia is a white girl.  Her brother Ben is a little darker skinned, but hangs around other white fellows.  Her brother Hugh is definitely black.  His best friend and manager is black, and most of their other friends are also black.  When Tony meets Hugh his reaction is definitely abrupt and offensive.  As a result of their one-night stand and Tony’s subsequent racism, Lelia realizes she has some things to think through.

I was most impressed by the way the film deals with these issues naturally, as the actors improvise their way through difficult scenes.  It is always clear that their family comes first, though they understand there will be some difficulties ahead for them.  Thematically Shadows is ahead of its time.  Stylistically, too, the film stands out.  There is little exposition; just characters and the meanderings they experience over the course of a couple days.  This template has been followed by dozens, if not hundreds, of independent films in the years since Shadows‘ release.

I found the film to be personally inspiring, as Cassavetes managed to make a feature film without using any standard means.  He was on his own, with generally inexperienced actors and without scripted lines, and he managed to create a feature length film that deals with some tough issues.  The film succeeds at what it sets out to do, but that doesn’t mean everyone will appreciate it.  If you’re looking for a complicated story or any sort of action, Shadows is not for you.  If you’re interested in the genesis of American independent film, or just in compelling dramatic themes told in an unorthodox manner, Shadows is definitely worth the time.


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