The production of John Cassavetes‘ first feature film, Shadows, began impulsively as an improvisational project in one of the acting workshops he led. Its production was announced without the knowledge of its actors on Jean Shepherd’s Night People radio show, whose listeners helped to fund the film with donations.
What started as an experiment in the nature of filmmaking became the first modern independent film, a startlingly intimate story of characters driven by having things on their terms, with nothing to depend on but those few people closest to them. If Shadows feels like a director’s first film – the improvisational dialogue is sometimes clunky, and the performances can be uneven – it demonstrates the filmmaker’s potential.
The romantic relationship between Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), a light-skinned black woman, and her hot-tempered paramour Tony (Anthony Ray), is often billed as central, but it’s just one leg of a film that explores not only themes of race but of alienation and disenfranchisement. “I am who I am” is the rallying cry heard from every character at one point or another, and it reflects not only the attitudes of the characters but of a director and crew determined to show that cinema didn’t have to be a creature of Hollywood.
Shadows is, at its heart, a film of pioneering independent spirit devoted to being what it is. It does not aspire to an epic scale, becoming comfortable in its own small place, a picture of peoples’ lives that slides in and out of the story without sentimentality or spectacle.
Cassavetes’ skill in choosing and framing shots is evident from the first moments. Shots like Lelia standing beneath a garishly lit Times Square marquee are set alongside the intimate touches of awkward lovers, shown in close-ups so extreme they seem almost invasive. Shadows also intrigues viewers with its consistent disagreement between the seen and the heard, as when Ben (Ben Carruthers)gazes at a statue as his friends are heard off-screen bickering over the nature of art.
Some of Shadows’ characters are introduced by only a line, their voices heard, but they are never seen. In parties and diners, multiple scenes run parallel and perpendicular to one another; as the camera takes us from one character or discussion to another without warning. These seemingly disparate elements form a whole greater than their parts.
Whether it’s exploring light and shadow in design or strength and vulnerability in the character of Lelia, Shadows is a study of contradiction and counterbalance. The cloying, intellectual atmosphere of a literary party is juxtaposed with a carefree, jazz-scored run through the park in the next scene. Jazz plays a huge role in Shadows, whose score was partly performed by the legendary Charlie Mingus. The score is excellent and perfectly punctuates the free-from, improvisational performances in the film.
Criterion’s newest release of Shadows is not without its bumps, mostly in unavoidably choppy edits. While imperfect, this is certainly the best cut available of a piece of cinematic history that, by the director’s admission, was never meant to be a commercially viable feature film. To Cassavetes and the small, tightly knit crew who crafted it, Shadows was an experiment meant to test the medium and see what makes it tick. For Cassavetes, in particular, it was instrumental in discovering himself as a filmmaker.
After falling in love with the camera on the first shoot of Shadows, Cassavetes was forced to reshoot much of the film. In this second, he added some of the film’s most impressive shots, including the iconic bedroom scene, the camera slowly descending to Leila’s distraught face, her frightened eyes filling the screen. As Tony rises into the frame behind her, the audience sees two characters sharing a bed but in two different worlds. “I never thought it could be so awful,” says Lelia, her disappointment and fear as visible as the deep shadows the star-crossed lovers cast over one another. “I thought we’d be as close as two people can get. But instead, we’re strangers.”
Shadows is not without its share of flaws. The improvisational plot develops some gaping holes, and the camera work and editing choices bear the hallmarks of a first film. However, in the context of its creation, Cassavetes’ freshman effort is a stirring success and a worthy prelude to the career of one of America’s finest filmmakers. For anyone interested in the history of cinema, independent or otherwise, or just looking for a worthy introduction to a brilliant director whose influence is underrated in many modern circles, Shadows warrants a look.
Criterion has packed the disc with special features, including an interview with Leila Goldoni and Cassavetes lifelong friend and collaborator Seymour Cassel. Without training, Cassel worked on the crew of Shadows, assisting the skeleton crew of photographers and sound engineers in creating what would become an understated monument on the landscape of American filmmaking.
Also included is silent footage of one of Cassavetes’ acting workshops where Shadows was born as an experiment and a gallery of production photos. Both are interesting, though mostly to a fairly small, historically inclined coterie of viewers.