DVD Review: ‘Shadows’ (The John Cassavetes Collection, BFI release)

2 minutes




In the late 1950s, when the French New Wave pioneers were playing with narrative structure and dabbling in existentialism across the Atlantic, a young American director called John Cassavetes was busy conducting his own cinematic experiments and sowing the seeds of the American independent film movement. The work of Goddard, Truffaut and the rest of the Cahiers du Cinéma crew are embedded in the foundations of modern movie criticism, yet Cassavetes’ raw output is rarely mentioned in film studies textbooks and lecture rooms.

Shadows (1959), Cassavetes’ first picture is a wild, jazz-soaked glimpse into the the New York City beatnik scene, which was first shot in 1957 but remade after after the original received a poor response during its three midnight showings at the New York Paris theatre.

Featuring a cast of unknowns and a mixture of scripted and improvised dialogue, Cassavetes’ Shadows is a crude and disjointed affair, but as an example of early Guerilla filmmaking it is interesting in a historical context and there are certainly a number of great scenes. This is especially true of the opening credits party, featuring the confrontation between Tony (Anthony Ray) and Hugh (Hugh Herd) after Tony discovers his girlfriend Leila (Leila Goldoni) is of black origin (interracial relationships were still very much taboo during the period). The characters live in a cool bubble, everyone is beautiful and the only thing on their mind is love and good times but prejudice and disillusionment seeps in and sours their party drinks.

Structurally, Shadows is undeniably all over the place, perhaps more of a result of the shooting taking place over three years rather than Cassavetes experimenting with structure. The quality of performance also swings from being solid and believable to downright poor but again, they must have struggled to maintain interest and character continuity due to the lengthy shoot.

Like much of Cassavetes’ work, Shadows is an acquired taste. However, if you’re an arthouse regular or a young filmmaker then you may well will find plenty here to admire and inspire.

Lee Cassanell

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