Shadows is an pivotal moment in film history, especially so for independent cinema. John Cassavetes’ directorial debut, and in someways, the debut of independent cinema, changed American film forever. The film shows the inexperience of the filmmakers and talents, but the film’s content is indeed wise.
The actual story in Shadows is loose and does not follow a conventional or formalistic plot that is typical of Hollywood. About fifty percent of this film is just two groups of Manhattanites just hanging out, enjoying life, enjoying the city, enjoying each other.
Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) a gorgeous girl lives with her older brothers Benny (Ben Carruthers) and Hughie (Hugh Hurd) who are both unemployed or struggling within the local Jazz community. While Hughie is a darker skinned black man, Lelia and Benny are much lighter skinned, often passing for white people. She meets Tony, a fast-talking white guy, and the two hit it off for what would be Lelia’s first sexual encounter. When Tony finally meets Hughie, he realizes that he’s been dating a black girl, and he sends himself in a rage and flees the apartment almost immediately.
Cassavettes’ does not focus necessarily on the story in Shadows and instead points the camera at what Manhattan is. People of all ethnicities and races living together, however at this time in American history, segregated. We see groups of friends hanging out, just hanging out. There is no real plot beyond Tony and Lelia. This claustrophobia and racism was so true for its time.
Tony didn’t love Lelia because she was black, he loved her because she was Lelia. The weakness in Tony is his fear of others and the intolerance at large.
The non-professional cast and crew shows gives this film a characteristic and story that not even the scratches and film grain can provide. These actors and actresses do not have the common face that are plastered on posters or in movies. In someways you can say these people are not beautiful (although Lelia Goldoni—in my opinion—is gorgeous). During this time period in this film, these actors and actresses were not your typical pretty face on the silver screen. They were the same people walking the streets of Manhattan, but that is what makes them beautiful.
It is this minimalism that is such a shock to the average film-goer. Edits do not match. The soundtrack is rough. The camera has to chase the talents and the action. The film is an improvisation of a loose script, and it shows. One can assume that this film is unfolding in front of a voyeuristic camera. Peering into the lives of Tony and Lelia, but also peering in to the culture of the late 1950s.
Extreme-closeups are unflattering to all the actors and the jerky camera work can be mistaken for shotty filmmaking, if you think of it that way. This guerrilla-style of having the camera to need to “find” the actors and place them in frame can be a metaphor for how the people these actors portray are looking for a place to belong. And soon they will find that they are well framed in the eyes of history. The generation that these characters portray will become the counter-culture that will essentially change America and the world for that matter, all within a few years from the original release of this film.
The Beat culture of the late 1950s, the impending counter-culture and civil rights are the issues that are truly featured here. Years before they became mainstream issues that shaped America. Shadows is about being young and in love, and being young and in love with life. While love is an essential ingredient in this film, the grittiness of the city and and ugliness of racism is rampant. This balance is what makes Shadows an impressive film. Even beauty lies in the darkness of shadows.