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  • Writer's pictureDomenic

Shadows (1959)| Review

As with most debut films, Cassavetes made Shadows on a shoe-string budget accompanied by inexperienced actors. And similar to other debuts, the themes of the director's body of work are first introduced. Cassavetes made his career out of films that solely follow the lives of people. His films don't tell exaggerated adventure stories or hard-boiled mysteries, but instead the small and minute details of human life. His films are less concerned with the audience's entertainment. Rather, they take their time (often +2 hours) to venture into the minds of complex individuals. With Shadows, the complexities in John Cassavetes's films are first introduced.

Cassavetes went through a bit of hardship to get Shadows up and running. Frustrated with the first version of the film, he reshot almost the entire film. Despite starting production in 1957, it wasn’t until 1959 when he released the film to audiences. Roughly $20,000 was spent on the film and was shot by a mere six-person crew. Cassavetes used non-experienced actors and backdrops of New York City to film his debut. In every sense of the word, Cassavetes was a guerrilla filmmaker, and would subsequently influence American independent cinema. Shadows was inherently the first of its kind. Independent cinema in the 1950s was almost unheard of. Some gems like Little Fugitive were released, but if a film wasn't made by a big studio, then it wasn't released at all. American independent cinema would make its mark in the 60s, thanks in part to Shadows. Shadows was the film to demonstrate that talent can emerge from first-timers and low budgets. And for that reason (among many others) Shadows is remembered nearly 65 years later. But the film isn't solely remembered for its influence.

What's fascinating about Cassavetes's directing style is that it all feels very hectic yet controlled. He will shoot a scene in a very spontaneous and off-kilter manner, yet direct the cast in an incredibly precise way. A Woman Under the Influence, another film by Cassavetes, does a great job at exemplifying this. During one scene (avoiding spoilers), the environment and overall feel of the film come across as very haphazard and energetic. Yet, every detail is perfectly aligned to capture this certain aspect of the film. From an acting and directing standpoint, the films of John Cassavetes feel very messy. But upon closer inspection, they are far from it. Apparent throughout the duration of the film, Shadows obviously fits into this crowd. While some might argue that it feels more messy than precise, every detail is accounted for. The film interweaves many plot elements and narratives with equally erratic camera work, yet it all feels very precise. A low budget doesn't prohibit the film's technical qualities, except for one audio-syncing moment halfway through the film. Likewise, the filmmaking and story fit perfectly with one another. The only remote quibble I might offer is the audio-syncing moment previously mentioned, which is why I gave it a 95/100. The themes of the Shadows are as impressive as its technical qualities.

In Shadows, Lelia (Lelia Goldin) is a half-white, half-African American woman who resides with her two brothers in a New York City apartment. She longs for a relationship, and eventually experiences the effects of racism first-hand as a resultt. A man who she's been dating for a while is stunned by her African American heritage and leaves her. Due to this element in the plot, accompanied by many others, racism is a prominent theme in the film. In the setting of a city known for its racial diversity, Shadows ventures through the heart of New York's culture and history of diversity. Shadows reflects on America's struggle with racism throughout its past and present. Films like Shadows are the reasons why racial injustice is slowly diminishing and becoming widely acknowledged as something that requires action. And because of this, I believe the film is a masterpiece and one of the most important films ever made.

Time Stamp: October 2022

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