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A Look Back At John Cassavetes ‘Shadows’ – a pioneering movie in the history of American independent cinema


Written by John Cassavetes

Directed by John Cassavetes

USA, 1959

      “We did everything wrong, technically…. The only thing we did right was to get a group of people together who were young, full of life, and wanted to do something of meaning.” – John Cassavetes

As one of the first movies to be produced outside of the Hollywood studio system, John Cassavetes’ self-financed Shadows (1959) is a pioneering movie in the history of American independent cinema. Favoring an approach influenced by theatre, Cassavetes cast amateur actors and friends in a semi-improvised character study about three siblings living in 1950’s New York. Produced on a small budget, Shadows was shot in Cassavetes’ own apartment and out on the streets of Manhattan, while friends stood on look out watching for the police.

In the final credits of Shadows Cassavetes mischievously proclaimed, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation”. If Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (released the same year) recalibrated the language of cinema, Shadows showed that it was possible to make a movie that wasn’t cinema.

The idea for the film’s basic story first began with an improvisational workshop at the Variety Arts, where Cassavetes ran acting classes with Burt Lane. After choosing some of the better actors from his workshops, Cassavetes ran through different scenarios with them. It was when exploring an improvisation around a black girl who looks white that the session came alive. According to Cassavetes “the wild dream grew that this improvisation could be captured on film”, which he decided to produce independently as it was “more important to work creatively than to make money”.

In 1957 there were few films made independently of the studio system in Hollywood. Notable at the time was Kenneth Anger’s experimental Fireworks (1947) and Morris Engel’s Little Fugitive (1953), which had garnered Oscar nominations and left a deep impression on the emerging Nouvelle Vague movement.

To retain artistic autonomy Cassavetes had to be creative in raising money and finding equipment for the film. He arranged an interview on Jean Shepherd’s Night People radio show, and told the DJ about the improvisation and the idea for the movie. When asked how he was going to fund the film, Cassavetes replied; “if people really want to see a movie about people they should just contribute the money”. After that radio listeners started mailing in money to the station. For the next two years Shepherd would keep listeners up to date with the making of Shadows, which he described as “their film”.

With the money from the radio station Cassavetes was able to put his TV acting career on hold to film Shadows “for the fun of doing something we wanted to do”. He raised some additional funds from his contacts book and borrowed camera equipment from independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke. With Erich Kollmar on board as cinematographer and a small crew of friends brought in as assistants, he was ready to start shooting the film.

Shadows’ narrative centers on a young black family of two brothers Hugh (Hurd), Ben (Carruthers) and a sister Leila (Goldoni) who live together in a small apartment in New York. Their parents are not seen or discussed; and it is implied that they are now orphans. However, Cassavetes was careful to frame the film without any explanations to empower the audience to create their own assumptions about the family’s past.

Cassavetes also prevented his actors from discussing their parts with each other in order to maintain “independent conception” of their character and to tell the stories of Shadows through multiple perspectives. Along with producer and assistant Maurice McEndree, Cassavetes would explain the circumstances of each scene and give the actors a rough outline of the storyline. This was so the narrative in Shadows would “emanate from the characters”, rather than “the characters emanate from the story”. Cassavetes also insisted that the actors use their own names in the film to encourage the characters to live within the part and react naturally.

Hugh, the eldest and patriarch of the siblings, is a struggling musician working the club circuit with his manager Rupert. He believes in having “class”, but finds his heartfelt singing being ignored by an audience restless for cheap entertainment. As Rupert loses faith, Hugh holds onto the belief that they are a great team and will eventually succeed.

Ben plays jazz trumpet (although we never hear him play properly), and hangs in cafes talking to girls and getting into fights with his friends Tom and Dennis in scenes reminiscent of Fellini’s I Vittelloni. He is the least verbal of the three characters and has a loner beatnik exterior, which seems to shrug at the world. He looks in disgust at everyone having a good time, viewing them as superficial for pretending to be happy. Yet he believes in “feeling”, and is searching for something which he doesn’t get closer to finding by the end of Shadows; he is only sure that he doesn’t want to continue living his life the way he is.

The sister Leila is an aspiring artist (trying everything from painting to writing in search of enlightenment), and through her friend David (Pokotilow) falls in with a group of bohemians and intellectuals. Leila meets Tony (Ray) at a party full of boorish intellectuals discussing existentialism and, after kissing him (to prove she can be spontaneous, a reflection of a belief held in strong regard by Cassavetes), she embarks on a one-night stand at his place. The typical Hollywood post-coitial scene is subverted, as Leila expresses her disappointment with the experience. Upset, she decides to leave, but Tony convinces her to share a taxi back to her home. Upon meeting her brother Hugh, Tony suddenly realizes Leila is black and not white, as he had believed her to be. As Tony runs out of the apartment, a tense standoff ensues between him and Hugh; nothing is verbalized, Tony’s racial prejudice is shown purely through his body language.

If the original improvisation that inspired Shadows was centered on racial issues, Cassavetes’ final version dealt with this more elliptically. In an ambiguous piece of casting, the characters Leila and Ben are played by white actors. Nonetheless, Cassavetes was careful to make Shadows focus on the personal issues the characters faced and not the wider political issues, as he didn’t believe “the purpose of art is propagandizing”.

Cassavetes and his crew couldn’t compete with the production values of Hollywood cinema, and a lot of the unique aesthetic of Shadows derives from this lack of expertise and budget. The rough edges became happy accidents; mistakes that couldn’t be fixed yet added an original element to the film.

Kollmar shot Shadows on 16mm (the cheapest film then available at the time) and had to use natural light in most scenes. Many scenes were filmed in Cassavetes’ apartment, which Kollmar often concealed by keeping the camera tightly framed on the characters. In one close up of Hugh, his manager Rupert and a promoter, Kollmar frames the three characters’ faces ducking in and out of focus. This intimacy draws the viewer into the conversations as if they are standing in the room and almost invading their personal space.

Rather than re-dub the actors voices (a common practice in film at the time to achieve a clean separated sound), Cassavetes kept the original dialogue that was recorded by soundman Jay Crecco (partly also because he couldn’t afford to re-record it). As a result, background noises off the street and from the neighbors above their homemade sets bled onto the sound recording, and created a natural ambience which emphasized the film’s real life authenticity.

By shooting out on the streets of New York (as opposed to the large studio stage sets that were being used by Hollywood), Cassavetes captured a time capsule of New York in the late 1950’s. In one sequence, as Leila is followed through Times Square by a stranger, rows of cinema billboards shimmer in the night above adverts for films such as Brigette Bardot’s The Night Heaven Fell. With Shafi Hadi’s minimal saxophone wails and Charles Mingus’ elastic bass on the soundtrack, Shadows evocatively documented the era of the ‘beatniks’; particularly in an opening shot when Ben walks past the legendary Birdland (New York’s home of Jazz, then in it’s prime).

The filming of Shadows took nearly three years to complete and is divided into two time periods, which created two very different versions of the movie. The first version was filmed in 1957 and contained scenes that were based mostly on the originally improvised concept. This first cut of Shadows was shown at Paris Theater in New York in November 1958 where it met with a mixed reaction (most of the audience left, but one critic Jonas Mekas was mesmerized by the film, as was Robert Frank, the photographer who traveled with Jack Kerouac taking pictures collected later in The Americans). Cassavetes however, felt the first edit contained too much “cinematic virtuosity” and was “nothing to do with people”, so with writer Robert Alan Aurthur he scripted a series of new scenes, which they shot in the spring of 1959.

To make these new scenes flow in a naturalistic manner Cassavetes often filmed them from the perspective of one camera, avoiding the use of different angles of the same scene. Cassavetes also maintained an element of improvisation in these scripted scenes by extending them in length and allowing the actors performances time and space to develop.

Cassavetes later stated that with the new added scenes “the imagination of youth that sparked the first version came back stronger, clearer and more determined to enlighten rather than prove”. The first version was made on a cusp of excitement and adventure yet once finished, in Cassavetes’ mind at least, did not fulfill the potential of the Workshop improvisation. With the second version, a clearer idea emerged of what the story should be, as Cassavetes focused on capturing more precise emotions from the actors. However, it is impossible to fully compare the two versions of the film, as unfortunately an original print of the first edit no longer exists (or has yet been found and verified).

Once Cassavetes had inserted the new scripted scenes and edited the final cut of Shadows, the film was shown at Fashion Industries Auditorium as part “The Cinema of Improvisation” program in November 1959. The bill also featured Robert Frank’s Pull my Daisy, which he had been inspired to make after seeing the first version of Shadows at the Paris theater.

After various attempts to secure U.S distribution for Shadows ended in failure, Cassavetes resorted to taking the lead part in a new TV show, Staccato, to cover the debts he had accrued from the film.

If distributors were reluctant to support Shadows, the film did strike a nerve with critics. Mekas (who actually preferred the first version of Shadows) and Albert Johnson, wrote articles in Sight and Sound and Film Quarterly respectively. These articles attracted the attention of the British National Film Theater who requested to show the film. Cassavetes, who by now had put Shadows behind him as he tried to relaunch his acting career, agreed but forgot to send the print to them. It took a last minute trans-Atlantic call from Seymour Cassel (an assistant and actor in the film who would feature in nearly all of Cassavetes’ future movies) to get the film reels sent over.

Cassavetes traveled to London after Shadows was premiered and with the help of publicist Jo Lustig (the cheapest P.R person he could find, and who would later do the promotion for all of his films released in the UK), hustled to get the film a distribution deal. An impressively enthusiastic response at the Venice Film festival further cemented its growing reputation, and eventually British Lion agreed to distribute the film, paying Cassavetes an advance of $28,000.

British Lion screened Shadows at the London Film Festival in October 1960 where it met with ecstatic reviews from the British press and was praised for it’s innovative street style. Critics were impressed with Cassavetes statement in the final credits that the film was “an improvisation”. When speaking to journalists, he would embellish this aspect of the film further, while smartly neglecting to mention the fact that many of the scenes were actually scripted.

The momentum Shadows gained in Europe faltered upon its release in the U.S (through the British Lion distribution deal). Reviewers were less impressed with the gritty, low budget values than European critics and the film disappeared from view again.

After Shadows Cassavetes directed two studio-produced films (Too Late Blues and A Child Waiting), but quickly became frustrated when he couldn’t integrate his own free-spirited working methods into the tight constraints of a ‘professional’ production. Instead he climbed inside a Trojan horse and rode through Hollywood, acting in big budget films such as The Dirty Dozen (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Two Minute Warning (1976), as a means to fund the movies he wanted to make outside of the studio system.

The manner in which Shadows was created has proved an inspiration for generations of filmmakers. Martin Scorsese (a devotee himself) said there “were no more excuses” after seeing it. Shadows proved that filmmaking could be small scale, improvised, uncommercial and rough and ready. The important thing was to actually have something to say and be truthful, while not letting the production get in the way of the storytelling.

Shadows would remain Cassavetes’ favorite movie; “simply because it was the first one and we were all young, and because it was impossible, and we were so ignorant, and for three years we survived each other and everything”.

– Thomas Jarvis