While on a radio talk show during the late 1950s, actor John Cassavetes casually mentioned his desire to film an improvisatory project and was soon surprised to receive public donations totaling nearly $20,000. Inspired, Cassavetes scraped together additional funds and, armed with a 16mm camera, he shot the powerful and moving SHADOWS, heralding a vital...read more
While on a radio talk show during the late 1950s, actor John Cassavetes casually mentioned his desire to film an improvisatory project and was soon surprised to receive public donations totaling nearly $20,000. Inspired, Cassavetes scraped together additional funds and, armed with a 16mm
camera, he shot the powerful and moving SHADOWS, heralding a vital new era in independent American filmmaking.
Based on a series of improvisations created by members of the Variety Arts Studio, of which Cassavetes was the director, the film depicts the struggle of three black siblings to survive in the mean streets of Manhattan. Hugh (Hugh Hurd), the oldest and a would-be jazz musician, watches over Ben
(Ben Carruthers) and Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), both of whom can, and do, pass for white. Darker-skinned than his younger siblings, Hugh has grown increasingly embittered due to the limited opportunities open to him; his artistic potential is being wasted in the dives and strip joints he's forced to
play trumpet in just to survive.
Meanwhile, Lelia hooks up with the pretentious New York art crowd and moves among them, teasing and flirting. She has an affair with Tony (Anthony Ray), a young white man, and loses her virginity to him. However, when Tony learns that Lelia is a mulatto, he leaves her. Ben leads a carefree life,
hanging out with his friends Tom (Tom Allen) and Dennis (Dennis Sallas), drinking, carousing and getting into trouble. One night the three young men become involved in a vicious street fight. By the film's end, Hugh grows more determined to win over one of the catatonic strip joint audiences,
Lelia has taken refuge with friends, and Ben is abandoned by his buddies and left alone to lick his wounds.
Failing to interest American distributors--who, in addition to the obvious issue of content, were put off by the fact that the film was technically spotty and directed by a man heretofore known only as an actor--Cassavetes took SHADOWS to the 1960 Venice Film Festival, where it won the prestigious
Critics Award. Shortly thereafter, the film was picked up for British distribution by Lion International. Finally, it made its way to the States and, to Hollywood's surprise, created a minor sensation.
Cassavetes was promptly hailed as a genius by critics and in no time began receiving offers to direct from major studios. The new director accepted Hollywood's embrace, but after making only two films (TOO LATE BLUES and A CHILD IS WAITING) he became frustrated by the limitations imposed on him by
producers and returned to independent filmmaking, which allowed him complete control over his art.
While SHADOWS has become somewhat dated over the years and Cassavetes went on to greater heights as a filmmaker, its importance in the development of the American independent movement cannot be overstated, nor can the unique power it still retains. The film perfectly captured a specific time and
place, illuminating simple truths regarding the human condition, while unveiling an important, powerful, and visionary new force in the American cinema.
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