Shadows (1959) – Movie Review


Among many others influences, there are two big movies which are brought up when it comes to the inception of independent cinema. The first is Breathless, and the second is this one, Shadows. Both were released within a year of each other, and both have surprising similarities; the debut films of important directors, shot cheaply, improvised with a group of the directors friends as a reaction to Hollywood cinema – with sequences outside movies theatres that deliberately comment as such – each embracing lo-fi techniques and have having a feel similar to jazz.

But where Breathless reacted to Hollywood by always showing its own artificiality, John Cassavetes Shadows is an attempt at a new kind of naturalism. Billed as an “improvisation”, the movie tells a plotless story of racial and sexual tensions that occur to the members of mixed race siblings. It was first blocked in intense workshops before filmed in order to get the most natural performances as possible. Being a low budget movie ($40000, insanely low for the time), that level of performance differs greatly depending on the quality of the actors – all of whom’s characters are named after their selves – but even despite that inconsistency the movie still feels raw and emotional even today.

The closest comparison to this story would be Imitation of Life, the Douglas Sirk film that came out the same year, but this tells that story of race and gender in a much less structured way. Narratives flow in and out of each other like the jazzy score, from Hugh’s struggles in the jazz industry to Ben’s beat-angst (which I have to admit was not my favourite story, mostly because he was the weakest of the three leads) to the societal pressures on Lelia when it comes to men and race. The tense sequence in which her boyfriend Tony reacts with an ugly attitude to the fact her brother Hugh is black is something that boils to the surface whilst its natural and never behaves like a “problem play” (like the good, but pretty haphazard Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner). Yet despite the much acclaimed naturalism, the movie is at times very cinematic and poetic, with peculiar camera angles (the shots of masks and statues constrasted with faces reminds me a lot of the French New Wave short film Statues Also Die), crowd shots that are filled with a busy intensity, and sound dropping out on occasion to show characters.

Of course though sometimes the sound cuts out because it was a cheap movie. Despite as many restorations as possible it isn’t flawlessly presented, with out of focus shots, sound clipping and bad dubbing that are definitely more the product of its budget than a grand vision. That’s also evident in the movie’s televisual, 4:3 aspect ratio, though as the movie progresses it helps you feel that intensity and entrapment that its leads feel.

Ultimately though, after more than 50 years this films still feels, for lack of a better word, cool. Intelligent conversation, jazz and rock & roll, the height of the beatniks, all of these things add to a low key yet vibrant atmosphere. And its that atmosphere that attracted so much American cinema after it: its influence on Martin Scorsese (Lelia Goldoni would star in some of his early works), the works of Soderbergh and Jarmusch and in turn all of American Independent Cinema and every mumbly digital film you have ever seen.

Despite some shortcomings that seem the product of John Cassavetes inexperience, the rawness of his style still makes an impact today (if you allow it to, some people might not be able to get pass the plotless nature and clear print problems). This is the first full film I have seen from him, but of what other piece I’ve seen, I know I have much to look forward to.

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