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SHADOWS (director/writer: John Cassavetes; cinematographer: Erich Kollmar; editor: Len Appelson/Maurice McEndree; music: Shafi Hadi/Charles Mingus; cast: Ben Carruthers (Ben), Lelia Goldoni (Lelia), Hugh Hurd (Hugh), Anthony Ray (Tony), Dennis Sallas (Dennis), Tom Allen (Tom), David Pokitillow (David), Rupert Crosse (Rupert), Davey Jones (Davey), Pir Marini (Pir), Victoria Vargas (Vickie), Jack Ackerman (Jack); Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Maurice McEndree; TCM; 1959)
It’s Cassavetes’s auspicious debut film as director.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The only film John Cassavetes (“Faces”/”Husbands”/”A Child is Waiting”) shot without a screenplay, as it’s completely improvisational. It’s also one of his great films. The indie was made for $40,000 on 16-millimeter and in 2003 was restored and blown up to 35-millimeter by the UCLA Film Archive. It’s Cassavetes’s auspicious debut film as director. It became recognized as a forerunner of the indie movement in America. The brilliant anti-Hollywood time capsule film, shot on weekends with an unknown cast, is visually stunning in b/w, original in narrative, filled with raw feelings, its characters were all colorful and warm, and it was deeply moving in picking up on a long gone bohemian scene in Manhattan and a seedy Times Square that exists now in a different corporate Disney-like form. Though not seen by many, this film had a strong influence on the young filmmakers of its day (for one, it influenced Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets).

It centers on a struggling artistic African-American family of two brothers and a 20-year-old sister. The sassy artistic Leilia (Lelia Goldoni) and her moody idler jazz trumpet brother Benny (Ben Carruthers) are so light-skinned that they could pass for white. The older and more stable protective brother, Hugh (Hugh Hurd), is a struggling nightclub singer. He has a dark complexion, which makes it hard to believe that they are siblings.

The film follows Benny horsing around with his two other idler white friends Tom (Tom Allen) and Dennis (Dennis Sallas), who roam the city getting into adventures trying to pickup girls and even at one time getting into a pointless bloody fist-fight with the dates of the girls they hit on. Leila dates a controlling older white effete liberal writer, David (David Pokitillow), who is poor in the romance department but is very intelligent. During a literati party, a fast-moving aggressive white guy, Tony (Anthony Ray, son of the great director Nicholas Ray), steals the playful girl away from David and breaks her cherry when he sleeps over. In the morning her black brother Hugh returns from his out-of-town engagement and Tony is shocked that Leila is a Negro, and immediately makes an excuse to split. Leila recovers from this rejection to date a handsome black singer dude (Davey Jones), who is not her type but will do until she meets Mr. Right. We see Hugh, who all the time is harping that his black manager Rupert (Rupert Crosse) can’t get him bookings in decent nightclubs where he can showoff his talent. But he takes the jobs in third-rate joints in order to support the family, and will show his love for his main man Rupert when it counts the most.

The rambling narrative is always interesting and inspired, as everything flows in a natural rhythm that keeps things real and uncertain. It shows that just like in real life there are always problems to deal with, and the film ends with one problem solved and only another to deal with. The spontaneous action gives these very sympathetic main characters a force that’s easy to relate to and allows us reasons to care for them even as they expose some of their trying flaws. It’s a film like no other of its time and though its about a scene that vanished, the film itself has not become dated.

There’s also a brilliant jazz score by Charles Mingus.

Although he appreciated the praises he received from Village Voice critic and filmmaker Jonas Mekas and others, Cassavetes wasn’t satisfied with his baby and withdrew it from circulation. He then wrote a new screenplay and reshot half of the picture from scratch. This version ends with a title card saying, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation,” but this is misleading since the picture I just reviewed faithfully follows a screenplay that was only based on the original improvisations.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”