Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Shadows (1959)

There are several criteria for making the List. Some movies were award winners, some were successes at the box office and some have simply passed the test of time and become classics. Then there are those that are none of the above, but critically acclaimed. They are a mixed bunch and make up a not insignificant portion of the List. For me there is a special group that transcends all these categories, namely those movies that does something new, breeth fresh life into the media and help shape movies as we know them today. “Shadows” is exactly such a movie.

By the usual criteria I should not even like this movie, but I am strangely fascinated by it and watched it with this feeling that I was witnessing something special, a harbinger of things to come. Calling it a rebirth is probably stretching it, but it felt incredibly modern.

“Shadows” is the first movie made by the famous John Cassavetes. It is proclaimed as an improvisation exercise, but that has since been refuted as a gimmick. Nevertheless it is a far looser than normal movie in filming, structure, script, and even plot. It is a meandering sequence of scenes witnessing what appears to be random event in the life of three siblings in New York.

Hugh (Hugh Hurd) is a jazz singer getting crap jobs in third rate joints and not doing too well on those. He is constantly shadowed by his manager, a very overbearing type. Through a combination of Hugh’s ever present anger and his lack of success Hugh drives a wedge between them.

Ben (Ben Carruthers), Hugh brother, is an unemployed trumpeter who is idling his time away with his just as useless friends. They frequent bars to pick up girls and spend an awful amount of time being bored. Attempts at moving them out of the rut are halfhearted and doomed, such as a visit at a museum, and it takes a brutal thrashing for Ben to wake up.

Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the sister, is a pretty, flirtatious girl, who is hell bent on defining her own rules. She allows herself to be impulsive, whether it be to walk up and kiss a stranger or invite a new flirt on a date with the current boyfriend. She has artistic aspirations and also in these insists on defying conventions. However beneath the independent front she is vulnerable and surprisingly innocent and whenever her attitude gets her into trouble she curl up or lash out as if she is ashamed of that vulnerability.

The life these siblings lead are very much in line with the beat-generation writers such as Jack Kerouac. It is a search for meaning, but a rebellious search outside conventions. In that sense it reminded me of Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”, but here the style of filming and acting points forward to Jim Jarmusch or Robert Altman. It is like a Dogme movie four decades before the term was coined. It lends the movie a realism and a refreshing air that makes it exciting to watch.

Completely in line with the style of the movie the conclusion is vague. It is a coming to terms conclusion, accepting things, that brings a calmness, but is sufficiently open-ended to not really be a conclusion at all and I am left with the feeling, for better or worse, that I simply watched a few days in the life of these siblings.

“Shadows” has a curious detail that has been made a lot of in reviews and comment, which is that of race. The movie is absolutely colorblind and the characters are all shades at random. Only for a single character does it seem to be an issue, otherwise people are simply people as if Cassavetes is simply stating that it is a non-issue. I prefer to look at it like that and just be bemused of the attention that particular detail has received.

You want to see something else tonight? Go watch “Shadows”. Lean back, let it play out. It is quite rewarding.


  1. I absolutely love John Cassavettes and this is one of his I have not seen. Your review makes me even more excited to get to it. So glad you liked it!

    1. I think you will find it at least interesting. And that is something.