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Remind Me

Shadows (1959)

Among the movies that played key roles in shaping modern American film, John Cassavetes's remarkable Shadows (1959) has probably been seen by the fewest moviegoers. This is partly because its distribution and video availability were limited for many years. But the bigger reason is its anti-Hollywood style, which blends restless, probing camerawork with intuitive editing and spontaneous performances that are as startlingly lifelike today as when they were new. Despite its tiny $40,000 budget, little-known cast, and audacious approach to acting and directing, it launched not only Cassavetes's filmmaking career but the much larger phenomenon of indie cinema, as Martin Scorsese recognized when he remarked that after Shadows arrived, there were "no more excuses" for directors interested in personal expression on the screen. "If he could do it," Scorsese declared, "so could we." Cassavetes died of liver disease in 1989, at fifty-nine years old, but his influence on younger filmmakers has been building steadily ever since.

For a movie clocking in at a tight eighty-one minutes, Shadows has strikingly rich characters and an absorbing story. Set in New York City, it centers on three African-American siblings, named after the actors - Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd, and Ben Carruthers - who play them. Lelia is young, playful, and self-absorbed, fascinated by her dawning sexuality but naïve about relationships with men. Hugh, a talented singer, is more aggravated every day by the failure of his manager (Rupert Crosse) to get him a booking in a halfway decent nightclub. Ben is a jazz trumpeter whose inward-looking nature serves as a shield against the hard realities of urban life, which rarely gives artists an easy break. Their distinctive personalities don't stop them from being loyal and affectionate toward one another, as the film's loosely strung-together episodes show. Avoiding conventional dramatic high points, Cassavetes lets the characters' worldviews and lifestyles reveal themselves through ordinary events, as when Hughie has to take an undignified gig introducing a chorus line, and when Benny gets beaten up in a pointless fight. The most involving storyline begins when the light-skinned Lelia flirts with a white man (Anthony Ray) at a party, loses her virginity to him, and then invites him to visit her at home; when he meets her darker-skinned brothers and realizes she is African-American, he beats a hasty retreat that's excruciatingly embarrassing for all concerned but points Lelia in the direction of a new maturity that bodes well for her future.

The history of Shadows is as offbeat as its content. As a rising young actor, Cassavetes did a guest spot on Jean Shepherd's eccentric New York radio show to promote Martin Ritt's Edge of the City, a 1957 noir that he and Sidney Poitier were starring in. During the broadcast, Cassavetes started complaining about Hollywood's weakness for predictable formulas, dissing the very film he was supposed to be promoting. Then he mischievously suggested that if listeners sent him money he'd create a movie that captured the complexities of everyday life with an authenticity Hollywood couldn't equal. To his surprise, money actually started coming in, and Cassavetes had to make good on his boast. Gathering a group of actors from a performance workshop he'd been running, he started directing them in improvised scenes, filming the most effective ones and channeling them into narrative form. The finished film was screened in New York in 1957, confusing and displeasing most of the few people who saw it but earning a prize from Film Culture magazine, which was edited by Jonas Mekas, a pioneering critic and supporter of experimental cinema.

Although he appreciated the plaudits he received from Mekas and a few others, Cassavetes wasn't satisfied with how Shadows had turned out. Deciding it needed a major overhaul, he withdrew it from circulation, wrote a new screenplay going way beyond the original scenes, and reshot half of the picture from scratch. This version ends with a title card saying, "The film you have just seen was an improvisation," but this is misleading, since the picture faithfully follows a screenplay that was only based on the original improvisations. The new edition premiered in 1959, getting high praise as a bold alternative to Hollywood fare. In addition to its American run it had strong engagements in England and France, won three BAFTA nominations, and took a prize at the Venice film festival. (Mekas was infuriated by it, though, considering it a commercial sell-out compared with the 1957 version.)

Cassavetes went on to an enormously successful acting career, starring in hits like Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), as well as an exciting writer-director career, which produced the masterpieces A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977) and many more, most of them starring his gifted wife, Gena Rowlands, and all of them (aside from a couple of flawed studio efforts) made outside the industry, so he'd have no one but himself to answer to. These pictures look and feel as spontaneous and improvisational as Shadows, but that quality is the result of hard, exacting labor by Cassavetes and his creative collaborators. Film scholar Ray Carney, the leading authority on Cassavetes's life and work, has shown that Shadows itself achieved its rough texture and off-the-cuff atmosphere via Cassavetes's mastery of studio techniques such as meticulous screenwriting, soundstage photography, and dialogue dubbing. What makes Shadows a one-of-a-kind movie has less to do with technique than with Cassavetes's view of life as a constantly changing, endlessly surprising process - an adventure in insecurity, to borrow Carney's phrase - that traditional movies inevitably betray when they insist on squashing it into familiar shapes and comfortable patterns.

One of the most conspicuous merits of Shadows is the indelible portrait it paints of Manhattan in the late 1950s, and of the marginal, quasi-Beat Generation scene that its characters inhabit. To my eyes, certain images of city life caught by Erich Kollmar's superb camerawork have never been surpassed: watch Ben wandering through a Beat-style party with bongo drums in hand; Hughie listening with undisguised dismay as a chorus line screeches a stupid song; and Lelia reacting to her first sexual experience with one of the most memorable lines in American film: "I didn't know it could be so...awful...." Cassavetes himself shows up momentarily as a sidewalk hipster on 42nd Street, and his brief appearance is perfect in every detail of look, tone, and gesture. Saxophone solos by Shafi Hadi and bebop bass by the great Charles Mingus provide a crowning touch on the soundtrack.

I had many conversations with Cassavetes in the 1970s and '80s, and writing about him a few years ago I quoted the response he gave when I asked if he directed his movies a lot, using a strong hand on the set. "I can't say I don't do it, but I never do it well," he answered. "Actors don't need direction, they need attention. I'll step in as a director - I'm laden with an ego, like everyone else - but whenever I have to open my mouth, I know I'm probably wrong.... I'm a sucker for actors.... I like them." Actors returned his respect and affection year after year, working with him gladly no matter how small the paychecks or how befuddled the reviews were likely to be. The most consistent feature of Cassavetes's films is their emphasis on mood and emotion over eye-catching action and pat psychology. "It's one of the surest bets in town that people have feelings," he told me. "If you don't believe that, you haven't experienced anything in life."

Director: John Cassavetes
Producer: Maurice McEndree
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Cinematographer: Erich Kollmar
Film Editing: Len Appelson, Maurice McEndree
Sets: Randy Liles, Bob Reeh
Music: Shafi Hadi, Charles Mingus
With: Ben Carruthers (Ben), Lelia Goldoni (Lelia), Hugh Hurd (Hugh), Anthony Ray (Tony), Dennis Sallas (Dennis), Tom Allen (Tom), David Pokitillow (David), Rupert Crosse (Rupert), Davey Jones (Davey), Pir Marini (Pir), Victoria Vargas (Vickie)

by David Sterritt