A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #251: John Cassavetes’ Shadows.


I said I was dread­ing the Cassavetes films that I was go­ing to have to watch as a part of my some­what man­ic de­ter­mi­na­tion to watch all of the films in the Criterion Collection, so, of course, I or­dered the two I’ve al­ready seen from the li­brary. I must ad­mit that I don’t hate Shadows any­more, maybe in the 6 years since last I saw it, I’ve grown to un­der­stand it bet­ter, or I have more ex­pe­ri­ence with which to rub it against; whichev­er, I now like this movie. I still ful­ly ex­pect to still hate Faces when I watch it lat­er tonight though.


Shadows, like most of Cassavetes films is an im­pro­vi­sa­tion. This is re­mark­able, es­pe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing the qual­i­ty of the per­for­mances. What is al­so re­mark­able was the price tag, a fea­ture length film made for $40,000, shot main­ly on lo­ca­tion in Manhattan, and some­thing that, by today’s stan­dards, seems much more re­al than re­al­i­ty tele­vi­sion. There isn’t tru­ly a plot, but there is a large event that the lives of the char­ac­ters or­bit. The three main char­ac­ters are Ben, Lelia and Hugh, broth­ers and a sis­ter, black or mixed, lov­ing each oth­er though fight­ing of­ten. Lelia and Ben could and can pass as white in most in­stances and for the view­er this is even more the case, since Cassavetes’ choice of high con­trast cin­e­matog­ra­phy height­ens this ap­pear­ance. Hugh’s back­ground is read­i­ly ap­par­ent how­ev­er. Ben is a jazz trum­pet play­er and Hugh a jazz singer.

Lelia is a doe-eyed beau­ty and all kinds of men are af­ter her. She is deft­ly ma­nip­u­lat­ed in­to los­ing her vir­gin­i­ty to this guy named Tony who, when he meets her dark-skinned broth­er and finds out she’s not Whitey, gets a lit­tle nau­se­at­ed and bails like a buck­et. Lelia’s bereft and de­pressed and look­ing to avenge her­self on some dude as a re­sult of the bad sex. Ben and Hugh, in ad­di­tion to do­ing their own thing, try to make her feel bet­ter.


I feel sor­ry for Hugh, he’s strug­gling as a singer but is the on­ly one to bring in any mon­ey for the fam­i­ly. Bennie stays out all night and in all day, and his en­tire com­port­ment is a mix be­tween mis­an­thropy and self-con­scious­ness. He nev­er plays his trum­pet on-screen, but he prob­a­bly bends that thing around his soul. Lelia spends all day hang­ing out with suit­ors or mop­ing. I’m kind of mak­ing her out to be a rather un­sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ter, but she’s not. Her ac­tions in film-time cen­ter around a trau­mat­ic ex­pe­ri­ence, but it is ob­vi­ous from her man­ner of re­cov­ery that she is as strong as the bond be­tween the fam­i­ly un­der­neath.


All of the char­ac­ters are fight­ing for some­thing. Lelia to re­gain her bal­ance af­ter her in­no­cence is de­stroyed, Bennie to come to grips with his place in a world he doesn’t like, and Hugh to re­claim a dream that has slipped from his grasp. Their strug­gles ring true, in dy­nam­ic coun­ter­point to the soul­less dis­cus­sions about Sartre and ex­is­ten­tial­ism that take place at a “lit­er­ary par­ty” in the first third of the film. In the end Cassavetes has cre­at­ed a pol­y­se­mous snap­shot of spe­cif­ic peo­ple with spe­cif­ic trou­bles and made their lives ap­plic­a­ble, un­der­stand­able and re­al to those that watch it. I fig­ure that’s a pret­ty good ac­com­plish­ment with on­ly $40,000 to work with.


Criterion Essay by Gary Giddins
Excerpts from Cassavetes on Cassavetes on the mak­ing of Shadows.
More Ray Carney on Cassavetes and Shadows.
• Dan Schneider re­view of the film.
A minute of footage from the be­gin­ning of the film on YouTube.