Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Stars: Ben Carruthers (Ben), Lelia Goldoni (Lelia), Hugh Hurd (Hugh), Anthony Ray (Tony), Dennis Sallas (Dennis), Tom Allen (Tom), David Pokitillow (David), Rupert Crosse (Rupert), David Jones (Davey)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: U.S.
Shadows DVD
Shadows“Hollywood is not failing. Hollywood has failed,” John Cassavetes famously wrote in Film Comment in 1959. Following and extending Jean-Luc Godard’s proclamation that the best way to critique a film is to make another one, Cassavetes critiqued the entire U.S. film industry by creating his own body of film work completely outside the studio system. Privately funded, intensely personal, and focused on themes that were often outside the bounds of what Hollywood was willing to face, Cassavetes’ films were completely different and wholly original.

Cassavetes’ directorial debut was Shadows, shot on 16mm black and white over a two-year period. The film was largely improvisational in nature and was not initially intended as a commercially distributed film. Rather, it was an amateur’s first stab at filmmaking—learning by doing, so to speak, and it is testament to Cassavetes’ instinctual understanding of the power of the medium that he made such an emotionally stirring debut when he didn’t even know exactly what he was doing.

Shadows tells the story of an interracial love affair, something that had been dealt with in Hollywood’s “social problem” films of the 1950s, but never with the kind of naked emotion and gritty realism that Cassavetes brought to the subject. The main character is Lelia (Lelia Goldini), a light-skinned African American women who falls in love with Tony (Anthony Ray), an aspiring jazz musician. Lelia lives with her two brothers, Hugh (Hugh Hurd) and Benny (Ben Carruthers), both of whom are also musicians.

Cassavetes focuses first on the emotional aspect of Lelia and Tony’s relationship before delving into the social ramifications of their respective races. The film’s best scene takes place immediately after Lelia and Tony have made love for the first time. For her, it is literally her introduction to sex, and it has clearly been an awful experience, a truthful admonition that goes against the culture’s natural tendency to romanticize lovemaking, particularly the fabled “first time.” Cassavetes shoots the scene in a mixture of tight close-ups and medium shots that emphasize the intensity of the emotions and also the awkwardness as the two lovers attempt to address the fragile issue of what to do next.

However, more so than the love story and its social ramifications, Shadows’ depiction of New York City and the marginalized characters who try to eek out a living in its shadows is central to the film’s effect. Unlike the romanticized grandeur of Hollywood filmmaking, Cassavetes preferred to train his camera on the back corners and dark alleyways of modern life. His characters struggle and work, frequently finding their dreams at odds with the reality of their lives.

Cassevetes evokes this theme in both work and love. Hugh, who struggles to assert himself as a singer but is constantly being relegated to second-class status in the seedy nightclubs where he can find work, can be seen as an obvious metaphor for the role of the artist in modern America -- full of hopes and dreams, but constantly subverted by the money men. Similarly, Lelia’s dreams of romance and passion are undermined by the realities of bigotry and class divides, and the effect is devastating.

Shadows is not by any means a perfect film. Although it is often rough and crude, its very amateurishness underscores the vitality of its characterizations. Unfortunately, the unknown actors give uneven performances, particularly Lelia Goldini, whose delivery of lines is often stiff and unconvincing, but whose eyes and body language communicates a sea of emotion. Set to jazz riffs by the great Charles Mingus, Shadows is uneven, but intoxicating, perhaps the greatest first film ever made by a self-proclaimed “amateur director.”

Shadows Criterion Collection DVD
 John Cassavetes: Five FilmsShadows is available in a single-disc edition ($29.95) or as part of The Criterion Collection’s “John Cassavetes: Five Films” box set, which also includesShadows, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Women Under the Influence and Opening Night, along with A Constant Forge, Charles Kiselyak’s feature-length documentary about Cassavetes’ life and career.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Video interviews with actress Lelia Goldoni and associate producer Seymour Cassel
  • 16mm footage of John Cassavetes and Burt Lane’s acting workshop
  • Restoration demonstration
  • Stills gallery
  • Trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    SRP$29.95 (single disc) / $124.95 (box set)
    Release Date February 17, 2009 (single disc) / September 21, 2004 (box set)

    Shadows is presented on this DVD in a striking new transfer in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The digitally restored image was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original negative, which has been preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The image retains a certain amount of roughness inherent to the original look of this film; Shadows is, after all, a low-budget amateur effort shot on 16mm. The restoration demonstration contained on this disc does an excellent job of explaining the process by which the film was restored and how decisions were made regarding what to “correct” and what to leave in (for example, hairs caught in the gate during filming were left in because they were present at the time of the film’s original screenings). All in all, Criterion’s presentation of Shadows is a first-rate effort and an invaluable lesson about the intricacies of film restoration.

    The soundtrack has been mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic audio track and then digitally restored. There is still some ambient hiss from time to time, but otherwise the only notable flaws in the track are part of the original sound recording.

    There are several supplements included on this disc, including a pair of revealing new video interviews with actress Lelia Goldoni and associate producer Seymour Cassel. Longtime Cassavetes fans will truly delight in the inclusion of rare 16mm silent film footage of Cassavetes and Burt Lane’s acting workshop in New York, the place from which his film career grew. There is also a plentiful stills gallery that includes rare behind-the-scenes production photographs and a theatrical trailer. As noted earlier, the restoration demonstration is particularly interesting as a lesson about the pitfalls of film restoration and why it’s so important to bring the film as close to its original state as possible without “fixing” it too much.

    Copyright ©2004 / 2009 James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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