Shadows DVD Review

ShadowsShadows, John Cassavetes‘ debut feature film, is as jazz as its characters and creator. It’s hep, it’s cool; it evokes New York like the work of Woody Allen and the Beat era like the writings of Kerouac.

At its centre are Bennie (Ben Carruthers) and Hugh (Hugh Hurd), brothers and musicians in a jazz ensemble, and their sister Lelia (Lelia Goldoni). Lelia and Ben are mixed-race and pass for white, and Lelia meets and falls in love with Italian-American Tony (Anthony Ray). They sleep together, and she begins to harbour hopes of a relationship, but Tony hadn’t planned on being tied down. When he meets Hugh and realises that Lelia is half black, Tony cuts and runs.

When the film was released in 1959 it caused a stir for a variety of reasons. As might be expected, the sight of a couple in a post-coital embrace was sufficient to shock an uninitiated public, but even more controversial was the film’s complete departure from the Hollywood model and studio system. Of course, Shadows was by no means the first independent film, but history has selected it as the watershed, the precursor of change.

ShadowsIt is the ultimate jazz film: as choppy, meandering and sultry as a jam session, Shadows captures the soul of the era. The film, and its score by Charles Mingus, is improvised, further underscoring its roots. In his essay on the film (printed in the booklet which accompanies the BFI release), Michael Atkinson expresses it beautifully: “Here, movies have discovered the art of hanging out; Shadows dawdles, slouches, wanders, vogues, and goes on drunken jags, just like its maker, who marries his own sense of what life and acting should be with the form of the film itself.”

It is not only the movie’s style that evokes the era – the dialogue and characters, too, are entirely of their time. Peppered with phrases that today are common colloquialisms but in 1959 were brand-new jazz slang, the language of the film would have had a similar feel to that of Tarantino’s dialogue in the 90s. The conversation and the characters engaging in it – packed with philosophy and pretension – are perfect portraits of cool, underground New Yorkers of the age.

Where a Hollywood film dealing with the same subject matter would have sought resolution and harmony, Shadows aims at neither. Cassavetes loathed “issue films”, and he recognised the futility of the pat resolutions posited by the studio films. Instead, his film is a meditation on racial difference and shades of grey.

ShadowsWhat in 1959 was new and shocking today seems somewhat familiar, and Shadows is probably more accessible today than it was at its birth. The influence of Cassavetes can be seen in the work of directors from Quentin Tarantino to Woody Allen, but Wim Wenders is perhaps the director working today whose work most closely resembles Cassavetes’ work. As an central piece of film history, Shadows is an evocative film that demands to be seen.


The BFI launches The John Cassavetes Collection on 23rd April with Dual Format Editions of Shadows and Faces.

About The Author

Katherine hails from South Africa, where she subsidised her uncompleted Masters in Film Studies by trying to persuade students there was more to film than the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg. Her portfolio of film criticism includes film column “The Maguffin” for (where the controversial “What Could a Nice Girl Like Me Have Against Forrest Gump?” caused quite a stir), a year as DVD Review editor for FHM and a lifetime of utter, unrelenting geekdom. Passionate about film in its many forms, she has a particular fondness for the Marx Brothers and David Cronenberg, and a DVD collection that takes up half her lounge.

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