John Cassavettes' 1959 directorial debut, Shadows, may not be the most polished picture ever made, in fact, parts of it pretty rough in terms of camera work and narrative structure. That said, the sincerity and passion that are evident throughout the picture elevate it in a sense, and there's very definitely some seeds of genius sewn in parts of the film.
The movie, shot on location throughout the Manhattan of the late 1950s, follows a young man named Benny (Ben Carruthers). Benny's a hip young guy who's into hanging out at jazz clubs and cruising the city. Benny's younger sister, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) has a good relationship with her brother, though Benny is concerned that she's falling in love with her boyfriend, Tony (Anthony Ray), a little too quickly for her own good. Benny's older brother, Hugh (Hugh Hurd), is trying his damndest to make a living as a musician, though he's fallen on some hard times as of late. Thankfully his agent, Rupert (Rupert Crosse), believes in him and does his best to help his career take off. Unfortunately for Lelia, when Tony meets Hugh his racial prejudices kick in and he leaves her.
Like its free-jazz soundtrack, Shadows jumps around a fair bit and as such, it has a kinetic sort of pace and tone but the improvised feel of the performances and the story really fit in with the equally frantic camerawork. Made with a cast of unknowns, Cassavettes' film is experimental enough to have had a wide reaching influence but reeled in enough that it's coherent and interesting rather than over-stylized and pretentious. Using Manhattan's natural charm as a unique character in and of itself, the movie feels real enough as it explores the lives of its characters, all of which intertwine in different ways (predating films like Pulp Fiction by a few decades) as the film brings us to an unexpected but completely logical confusion.
Cast using students that Cassavette's hand picked out of the acting classes that he ran with Burt Lane in the late fifties, the performances range from spot on and frighteningly accurate to quirky and awkward but the actors and actresses really do feel right in their roles. While there are flaws here and there and the film is far from perfect, it remains a fascinating time capsule not only of the early American independent film movement but of New York City itself. Those who enjoy footage of Manhattan and Times Square before it became a corporate landfill will appreciate the wealth of location shots that Cassavettes uses throughout the film. Like in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, the city becomes overwhelming at times, and the film effectively places the viewer in the middle of it all.
The film also does an interesting job of delving into many of the racial issues that were so prominent at the time and which continue to plague the world to this day. Benny, Leila and Hugh are all of the same African-American heritage but the different tones of their skin mean that people like Tony, who are predisposed to judge people based on skin color, react to them differently. He's obviously attracted to Lelia, who is considerably more fare skinned than her brothers, though it takes a meeting with her brother Hugh to really bring out Tony's true nature. The film deals with change in an interesting manner as well, not only in the way that Tony eventually views things but in how Lelia and her siblings see things as well.
Ultimately, Shadows is, in many ways, more important for what it inspired than for what it is, but the film is never the less an enjoyable drama. It's interesting to watch the characters develop over the course of the film and it's hard not to get pulled into the world that Cassavettes creates within the picture. At eighty-one minutes the film moves pretty quickly, an exercise in lean editing perhaps, but the energy and atmosphere that the picture emits is certainly infectious.
Shadows is presented in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio in a restored transfer that looks sufficiently clean and clear without getting rid of the film's gritty style, in fact, some defects (a scratch or two, a hair here and there) were left in to make sure that Shadows still looks like Shadows on this disc. Shot on 16mm black and white film stock, this transfer appears to be the exact same as the one that was used in the Cassavettes boxed set release that came out a couple of years ago, but that's not a bad thing. The image is strong and stable with nice blacks and good contrast though sharpness varies from scene to scene at times. You can't expect this film to look like a modern day big budget production - it's an older, low budget independent film and it looks like one. That said, most of us wouldn't have it any other way.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix on this disc (no subtitles or alternate language options are included here) is free of any hiss or distortion and features properly balanced levels and clean, clear dialogue. Range is obviously limited and a few scenes are a bit on the flat side but that's about the only complaints you can levy here, generally the movie sounds quite good considering its age and origins.
The extras start off with an eleven minute interview with actress Leila Goldoni who talks about how she wound up in New York City and eventually met Cassavettes who cast her in Shadows. She reminisces about her work on the film and about her relationship with its director and gives a pretty good rundown of what it was like to be involved with this particular movie. Also included is a five minute interview with associate producer Seymour Cassel who details his involvement with the production and describes how he got involved with Cassavettes and Shadows in particular.
From there, be sure to check out the four minute clip of Cassavettes instructing at the acting workshop he ran with Burt Lane. This silent, black and white clip was shot around the same time that this project was being made and you can see a few cast members in the class. Criterion has also included an eleven minute documentary that details the extensive restoration process that Shadows underwent at UCLA - it's pretty interesting stuff and it really makes you appreciate the transfer on this DVD.
Rounding out the extra features are the film's original theatrical trailer, a decent sized still gallery of production photos, menus and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet that contains an essay from film critic Gary Giddins and a 1961 article written by Cassavetes himself that originally appeared in an issue of Films And Filming.
Shadows might seem a little rough around the edges in spots but that's half of its charm right there. The film remains an interesting snap shot of the New York City that no longer exists, and has stood the test of time as an important milestone in the early years of independent filmmaking in North America. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.