Criterion // 1959 // 81 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // February 17th, 2009
"The film you have just seen was an improvisation."
It's somewhat embarrassing to admit, but this DVD of Shadows is my first introduction to the work of John Cassavetes. I became interested in film during the heady days of Miramax's reign as the leader in American independent cinema. I traced the lineage of American independent cinema from Tarentino back through Jim Jarmusch in the '80s to directors like Scorcese in the '70s. Somehow, I never made it back to Cassavetes, the guy who most people consider the father of independent cinema in America. Although I'm a little late to the party, John Cassavetes' Shadows is a worthy entry into the American film canon, and this single-disc release by Criterion is an excellent way for fans old and new to appreciate his groundbreaking first film.
Although Cassavetes' film is more about character than plot, the story revolves around a trio of siblings: Ben (Ben Carruthers, The Dirty Dozen), Lelia (Lelia Goldini, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), and Hugh (Hugh Hurd, Mafioso. Although the three are African-American, both Ben and Lelia are "passing" as white. Ben is a trumpeter who spends his days with his friends, while Hugh hustles work as a blues singer introducing chorus girls. Meanwhile, Lelia is seduced by Tony (Anthony Ray, The True Story of Jesse James), who has some difficulties dealing with his discovery that Lelia isn't white.
John Cassavetes is the kind of brilliant filmmaker who easily calls to mind other brilliant filmmakers. He's like Orson Welles because he used his Hollywood acting to fund his personal films. He's like Godard for making a daring, borderline anarchic debut film. He's like Howard Hawks for his willingness to spin yarns about his filmmaking, never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. But really, he's nothing like any of those other directors. What sets Cassavetes apart are his roots in the acting world. I know Welles was an actor before he made Citizen Kane, but he didn't have the fully formed theory of film acting that Cassavetes developed before embarking on Shadows. Fed up with film's insistence on technical perfection in lighting and focus, Cassavetes long to make films where the actors and their acting were just as important, if not more important, than any concerns of focus, lighting, or even overarching narrative.
This concern is everywhere evident in Shadows. The film grew out of improvisations between the actors (even if the final dialogue was scripted), and Cassavetes stays with his characters. The scenes don't feel like scenes, but actual moments seen or overheard in the street. Cassavetes doesn't just stay with his characters in terms of story; he uses his 16mm camera to go places that traditional 35mm film cameras couldn't go. This lends a fluidity to the cinematography which still seems fresh today, despite the ubiquity of the moving camera. Even more impressive is the fact that these photographic techniques do not feel at all pretentious or showy, but merely stand as the best way to present the characters in the film.
And what characters. They sound like caricatures or stereotypes: the black blues singer, the hip jazz trumpeter, and the innocent young girl. However, the situations they find themselves in, like an interracial relationship, and their reactions to those situations, are anything but stereotypical. It's a brave film that deals subtly with a number of difficult social situations without preaching or simplifying any of the difficult situations.
In 2004, Criterion released a box set of five Cassavetes films with numerous supplements, including a 2001 documentary on Cassavetes, A Constant Forge. It was perfect for the discerning Cassavetes fan, offering informative extras and excellent audiovisual presentations. However, for the casual fan, or the newcomer, the set was a bit overwhelming, making it difficult to enter Cassavetes' world because of the price and the sheer amount of material being offered. Criterion has since decided to release those five films separately, just as they were in the box set. Shadows is one of those films.
Shadows looks and sounds as good as you can expect from a low-budget 16mm film being released on DVD on its fiftieth anniversary. The video is a little grainy, sometimes shifts in contrast, and the print is not quite pristine, with scratches and dirt on occasion. However, all these elements add rather than detract from the film's gritty feel. The audio is far from pristine as well, but I had no problem discerning dialogue, while the film's jazz-inflected score stood out.
Extras on this disc are fairly extensive. We get video interviews with both Lelia Goldoni and Seymour Cassel. Both share their insights and recollections about the making of this groundbreaking film. There is also some silent 16mm footage of the acting workshop that Burt Lane started with John Cassavetes. It was from this workshop that Cassavetes drew the actors for Shadows. There is also a restoration demonstration that shows how far the film has come, as well as a stills gallery featuring production shots. Finally, the disc ends with the film's trailer. As usual, Criterion has provided a pair of essays in the booklet for this DVD. The first is a critical appreciation by Gary Giddins, and the second an article by Cassavetes himself.
I suspect that Shadows is a polarizing film. Many will certainly be turned off by the improvisatory nature of the actors and the lack of narrative drive. Cassavetes makes the kind of films that are best rented first because they are so strong they might turn the viewer off.
As for the DVD itself, both essays included in the booklet mention an alternate version of Shadows first screened in 1957. A Cassavetes scholar claims to have found a long-lost print of that first version (a fact Cassavetes widow, Gena Rowlands, denies). Whether the new print is merely a work in progress, or the original version of Shadows, the inclusion of that version would have made this disc a true standout for film fans, scholars, and historians. Even if the print turns out to be an elaborate ruse, including some information about the stunt would only add to the legacy of this rich film. As it is, this disc feels a little incomplete without more discussion and presentation of that earlier version.
Shadows is an obviously influential bit of American cinema and should probably be sought out by anyone with an appreciation for independent filmmaking. Those who already have the Five Films box set have no reason to buy this single-disc version of the film, but those looking to get their toes wet in the waters of John Cassavetes are urged to seek it out immediately.
For its unflinching depiction of life, Shadows is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Theatrical Trailer
* Ray Carney's Search for the First Version of Shadows