Cassavetes Retrospective: Shadows

In 1959, John Cassavetes directed a film that would become known as a landmark in American independent cinema. That film was Shadows.

Shadows tells a tale of three siblings – Ben, Leila, and Hugh – who are trying desperately to scrape out a living in New York City. Ben and Hugh are jazz musicians. Ben, the older of the three, considers himself a serious artist. He is constantly looking for work, and has just landed a job that he feels is beneath his talents. His brother, Hugh, is a womanizer and party animal who spends his days and nights in the company of his friends, carousing and getting into fights. Leila is an artist and intellectual who attends the occasional reading circle and enjoys the social life. She is also a flirt, and the men flock to her.

When Leila meets Tony, the two are immediately attracted to one another. Before long, the sweet-talking Tony deflowers Leila, after which he professes his love to her. When he finds out that Leila’s brother, Ben, is black, Tony callously shrugs her off, breaking off their relationship. Leila and Hugh have lighter skin than Hugh, and so Tony was obviously unaware that the relationship with Leila was interracial. It is Tony’s reaction to this news that provides one of the most memorable confrontations in the film, and where the strengths of Cassavetes’ raw directorial style shine through.

The subplot between Tony and Leila only scrapes the surface of Shadows. There are many moments that stand out. One such moment is a scene that takes place outside of a museum, when Hugh and his philistine friends attempt to discuss the arts. It’s an amazing scene that brings out the humanity in these characters, as well as their search for truth in that particular place and time.

This was true guerrilla filmmaking. The film was financed independently with funds that were collected from Jean Shepard’s Night People radio show, as well as money from Cassavete’s own pocket.


One image that sticks out is a shot of Hugh walking away from a movie theatre that is advertising the Biblical epic, The Ten Commandments, on the marquee – a box office smash that cost 13 million, and raked in well over 122 million dollars at the box office. Where The Ten Commandments was a bonafide mainstream crowd pleaser, Shadows was the exact opposite – an unpolished, challenging, intellectual character study that refused to spoon-feed. Cassavetes and his crew were breaking new ground, giving the system the finger, and using everything they had to make sure their voices were heard. It’s a single shot in the film that says so much about studio product versus the work of a true visionary.

Racial tensions were still high at the time this film was made, and Shadows was one of the first films of its kind to address these issues in a serious fashion. The improvisational nature of Shadows gives the film an edge that was non-existent back in 1959. Most of the actors were non-professionals, but they all deliver fine performances.

Shadows is one of the most important films ever made. It is mandatory viewing for cinephiles and students of film. It brought Cassavetes kicking and screaming onto the scene, and American cinema would never be the same ever again.

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