John Cassavetes’s Shadows is a vibrant, energetic, and sometimes bittersweet story of a tight-knit family of African-Americans during the live-wire era of the late 1950’s when coffee shops and poetry readings were fostering the minds of the disaffected and restless young folks of the Silent Generation. Known now as the filmmaking debut of actor-turned-director Cassavetes, Shadows still finds ways to surprise and excite more than sixty years after its debut though its real power is in the commitment to vision that is on display in every performance.
The family consists of Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a nightclub singer whose style is beginning to go out of fashion just as he’s reaching a crucial age in his life; Ben (Ben Carruthers), a wiry trumpet player who bounces around with his layabout pals; and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the twenty year old baby sister who utilizes literary parties and cultured events as tiny steps into the adult world. In the film, each character will face their own individual challenges that portend future conflicts and, likewise, each character makes some kind of choice as to how to move on with life despite the bitter disappointments and the numbing emptiness.
Ben bookends the film as his lonely, detached image is first seen unable to experience the natural joy amid a scrum of people in a tightly packed room and, in the end, he is last seen wandering off into the night after abandoning his friend, Dennis (Dennis Sallas), at a corner store. Ben’s aimlessness is the one felt by the jazzier and wilder audience members who may have had trouble conforming to the conventional scene of the day. His days are made up of hanging out with his buddies, Dennis and Tom (Tom Reese), which more or less consists of them going into coffee shops and picking up women. Frequently sullen and irritated, Ben is frustrated and trapped and his middle sibling status is indicative of that.
The older and wiser Hugh is also trapped but his prison is much sadder. An old school nightclub crooner, Hugh and his manager/friend, Rupert (Rupert Crosse), hustle their asses off to take horrible gigs for worse pay just to stay solvent and relevant. Hugh has few allusions regarding his plight and no real answers as to how to freshen up his act. When given third billing in a nightclub revue, he is roundly humiliated by the show’s director by having his number cut short and his introduction of the cheesecake dancers completely eliminated. He could hardly be more embarrassed if he looked down to find his fly open.
But the film’s heart is with Lelia, an intelligent and fiery girl of twenty who is expanding her horizons both intellectually and sexually, though, for her, reality collides with fantasy in an honest and uncomfortable post-coital scene with Tony (Anthony Ray), an awkward and slimy suitor. To add insult to injury, this unfortunate rite of passage (The Terrible First Time) is compounded with further aggression when Tony realizes that Lelia is black which causes a fascinating and heartbreaking dance between the characters in which Hugh, seeing exactly what is happening and how it is killing his sister, runs interference for her.
Given its origin as an improvisational project that was filmed and then, later, filmed again with a more structured script, Shadows is a gloriously ragged piece of filmmaking. Scenes filmed at different times get shuffled about in the narrative and jagged editing coupled with bad ADR have to suffice as chaotic bonding agents. Like the best of Cassavetes’s films, Shadows lacks a true plot and relies completely on the strength of its characters operating in a living and breathing environment.
But for all of his reputation as a handheld purveyor of character art, Cassavetes could create some incredibly amazing visual images. Shadows sometimes feels like a gritty documentary as it takes street-level views of 1959 wherever it goes, but it also finds the sublime such as in a moment during a stroll through a square in which Dennis and Tom bicker over art while the lightest traces of snow begins to fall. In one particular moment, the film settles into a dreamy state as Tony and Lelia achieve a blissful peace that is immediately interrupted by the Hugh’s thumb on the door buzzer; a visual foreshadowing of the internal anxieties about to hit Tony like a ton of bricks.
Tired of all of the soapy dramas and unrealistic characters that flooded the films coming out of Hollywood at the time, John Cassavetes pioneered a type of cinema that looked at the complexity and fullness of the lives of its characters which would then give the viewer the overwhelming sensation of knowing that even the most forgettable and mundane person encountered in any given day has their own epic tale full of rewards, challenges, and setbacks. Shadows is a film on the cusp of history circling around a family nucleus and watching the real-time reactions when you introduce it to new elements. For some in the circle, growth will cause their shadows to cast long and, for the other folks, theirs just get shorter.
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain