Director John Cassavetes is one of the most iconic names in American independent cinema. After watching the incredible Shadows (1959) I have to agree that such a reputation is warranted.
Set in New York, the film loosely follows three siblings living together in the late 1950s. The eldest brother is clearly African American, whilst his younger brother and baby sister are more pale skinned and at times throughout the film pass for white. This fact gives the film its major highpoint in terms of narrative conflict. Lelia, the female of the family, starts a passionate and loving relationship with Tony. Although it is only early in their relationship, not to mention the fact there have been tribulations up to this point, the couple seems to be headed in the direction of some sort of lasting bond. But just as Tony is leaving one day he happens across Hugh, Lelia’s eldest brother. Seeing Hugh, the fact that Lelia is in fact African American dawns on Tony and he reacts appallingly. Cassavetes is too clever a filmmaker to make this an over the top response though. But Tony is horrified that he has been sleeping with a woman of a different race and the excellent performance from Anthony Ray conveys to everyone the gravity of his shameful reaction. The performance of Ray and the way this entire scene is handled is one of many examples of the film refusing to portray simplistic interracial interactions at any level.
Some people reduce the whole point of the film to this singular moment. Whilst there is no doubting that it is both the most dramatic narrative event and moist pointed social commentary (Tony is not some redneck, rather a bohemian literary type) in the film, there is much more going on. Throughout the course of the film’s taut 82 minutes, Cassavetes crafts really satisfying character arcs for all three of the siblings. He shifts attention from one to the next, but never by completely abandoning attention on the others. I would say the focus of the film is actually on all three, rather than just on Lelia. The fourth main character the film focuses on is the very specific New York of the film which is populated by beatniks, literary types and guys looking to booze & fight. There is an openness also to various taboo subjects such as sex, specifically the physical and emotional pain of losing one’s virginity, and interracial relationships that helps to flesh out this world. In terms of shooting, the film is shot in a way that makes it look not cheap, but definitely grimy and a little underground. Obviously in part this probably reflects the budget that Cassavetes was saddled with, but it also reflects the world the characters live in, on the fringes. And it looks great.
Initially, some of the results from the film’s budget limitations can be a little distracting. The poor dubbing of the characters voices, which means they are pretty out of sync I found especially noticeable. Before long though, the film’s rhythm takes over and that is no longer a consideration. The film really does have a rhythm too. Most obviously from the wonderful jazz soundtrack courtesy of Charles Mingus that plays almost continuously through the film, but also from the cigarettes, dive bars, sex and street smart dialogue that the film is soaked in. Indeed it was the dialogue that really gave me a way into the film. It is at least semi unscripted, but excepting a rare occurrence early in the film that jars, this approach to narrative flows and makes the film feel realistic. The dialogue is helped by the fact that the performances, from the predominantly non-professional cast, are all really good. Especially from Lelia Goldoni as Lelia who brings to life a strong, individualist woman who is the perfect combination of naiveté and world-awareness. She is a figure of both gender and racial empowerment who cannot be handled by any of the men in her life, except her brothers who love her in the right way.
I really loved Shadows. It had that effect that some great films do that I just want to race out and get my paws on everything that Cassavetes ever made. To witness a quite different kind of master director at work, I can’t recommend this film enough. It is a wonderful snapshot, both of an original approach to the filmmaking process and of a time and place that Hollywood would never have bothered to spend a little time in.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter