Shadows (1959)

“The trouble with you is, you have a case of self-induced hysteria every time you hear the word ‘existentialism’.”

‘Shadows’, directed by John Cassavetes in 1959, is an American movie set amongst the ‘beat generation’ in New York. Three siblings of African-American descent move through the jazz clubs and nightlife of the city. Two are brothers who try to protect their sister from men, but she ends up involved with violent or shallow men. Meanwhile, the quest of the brothers for fame in the music industry leads to conflicts with other young men. It’s a meandering, elliptical movie, as much about the texture and feel of the city as about the story of the three main characters. It’s a film famous for being the beginning of Cassavetes directing career, for being, strangely, a simultaneously lost and present film (the director reshot most of the original two years later – the original has only recently been discovered). It’s also notable for being similar to Jean-Luc Godard despite being filmed a number of years before ‘Breathless’. It’s tempting to see this film, therefore, as an inspiration for the French New Wave, with its focus on the city, on contemporary youth and with its semi-improvised style. Cassavetes sold the film as improvised, but like Mike Leigh he prepared the film meticulously in advance in liaison with the actors, so by the time it was filmed (twice) it was fully scripted. All this gives the film a rawness and an energy and makes it powerful and compelling. As with his later ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’, as the tensions between the characters increase, Cassavetes manages to bring the audience with them.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a film with an undeniable energy and spirit. It also offers an insight into the prejudices and anxieties of a particular period in New York and American history. Watch in a double bill with Scorsese’s first full length movie, ‘Who’s That Knocking at My Door’, a film with a similar energy and a similarly complex production history.


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