Out of the Vaults: “Shadows”, 1959

Meher Tatna 11/27/2020

In 1957, John Cassavetes corralled a few students from the acting workshop he started in New York City to make a film as an exercise. There was no script, no permits for locations, just a 16mm camera and an idea for a theme on which the actors were to improvise. Scenes were shot guerrilla-style on the streets and in public places, or in borrowed apartments for interiors. When the cops appeared, either they were bribed to leave the production alone, or the crew just picked up stakes and moved elsewhere. When money ran out, Cassavetes went on a radio program to ask for help and raised $2,500 from the listeners. More donations were made by William Wyler, Hedda Hopper, Charles Feldman and others.

In the book “Cassavetes on Cassavetes,” based on interviews and discussions with the director compiled by writer/editor Professor Ray Carney, Cassavetes explained the problems he ran into. “When I started, I thought it would only take me a few months; it took three years. I made every mistake known to man. I was so dumb! Having acted in movies, I kinda knew how they were made, so after doing some shooting, I’d shout out something like ‘Print take three!’ I’d neglected to hire a script girl, however, so no one wrote down which take I wanted – with the astounding result that all the film was printed. We began shooting without having the slightest idea of what had to be done or what the film would be like. The technical problems of the production were endless and trying. The ‘sound department’ often looked at the recorder, only to see no signal whatsoever! So we had a couple of secretaries who used to come up all the time and do transcripts for us. They volunteered their services, they had nothing to do, we had all silent film. So we went to the deaf-mute place and we got lip-readers. They read everything and it took us about a year.”

For a total of $40,000, ten weeks of shooting, and a year and a half of editing, Shadows was made. This was Cassavetes’ directorial debut.

A screening was arranged at the Paris theater in New York in 1958 that did not go well: the audience walked out in droves. Undeterred, Cassavetes decided to redo the film with reshoots and re-edits, clarifying the storyline and removing most of Charlie Mingus’ music which was specially written for the first version. The new film – the version now in circulation, which has been restored with funding by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and The Film Foundation – was released in 1959. (The first version was lost for almost 50 years.)

Although the 1959 version ends with the card “The film you have just seen is an improvisation,” it was extensively rehearsed in reshoots. There are three Black protagonists, siblings, named after the actors who portrayed them: Ben Carruthers, Hugh Hurd and Lelia Goldoni. The timeline is two weeks in their lives, but there is no linear story. Hugh is a failed musician, reduced to introducing the chorus line at gigs in tawdry nightclubs. Ben is a ne’er-do-well, sponging off his older brother, chasing girls and hanging with his buddies. Lelia is beautiful and light-skinned; she falls in love with a White man who rejects her once he realizes her race. Circumstances beat them down and force them to face the prejudice they cannot escape. (Both Cassavetes and wife Gena Rowlands have uncredited cameos in the film.)

To Cassavetes’ surprise, the film did very well on release on the art-house circuit, and he was hailed as a pioneer of experimental cinema in the US, while in Europe, Jean-Luc Godard was getting kudos that same year for Breathless, which heralded the French New Wave cinema. Shadows won the Venice Film Festival’s Critics Award in 1960. What was appreciated by critics was the fact that the film reflected ordinary life with all its intermittent drama, even though there were stretches of banality, and veering off on random tangents while staying true to its purpose of revealing reality. The interracial relationships, kinetic black and white photography, and sheer energy of the film were enough to transcend the amateur acting, disjointed sequences and editing shortcomings. Cassavetes was offered two studio movies to direct following Shadows – Too Late Blues starring Bobby Darin for Paramount in 1961, and A Child is Waiting with Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland in 1963 for United Artists – and his career as a director was on its way.

What is surprising to find out is that no mention is made or shock expressed in the film reviews that Goldoni’s heritage was Sicilian and that Carruthers was only 1/16th Black. The fact that race was addressed at all in the film seems to be enough to have made this a non-factor.

Again from “Cassavetes on Cassavetes” in the Shadows chapter, Carney explains that the director’s intention was not to make a race film per se but to explore the search for identity. “We tried to do Shadows realistically – not Andy Hardy,” Cassavetes tells him. “I just was as tough and as mixed up and screwed up as anyone else, and made a picture about the aimlessness and the wandering of young people and the emotional qualities that they possessed. The story is of a Negro family that lives just beyond the bright lights of Broadway, but we did not mean it to be a film about race. It got its name because one of the actors was fooling around making a charcoal sketch of some of the other actors and suddenly called his drawing Shadows. It seemed to fit the film ... Everyone will get the wrong idea and say we’ve got a cause. I couldn’t care less about causes of any kind.”

Many of the hurdles he faced ultimately contributed to his avant-garde reputation. “The things we got praised for were the things we tried to cure,” he explained. “All those things were accidents, not strokes of genius.” For instance, there was no dolly, and long lenses were used to photograph movement on the street, contributing to the cinema verité style. The sound was lauded as realistic because it was all shot on the fly and not looped to clean up the track as was customary at the time. “But we recorded most of Shadows in a dance studio with Bob Fosse and his group dancing above our heads, and we were shooting this movie. So I never considered the sound. We didn’t even have enough money to print it, to hear how bad it was. So, when we came out, we had Sinatra singing upstairs, and all kinds of boom, dancing feet above us. And that was the sound of the picture. So, we spent hours, days, weeks, months, years trying to straighten out this sound. Finally, it was impossible and we just went with it. Well, when the picture opened in London they said, “This is an innovation!” You know? Innovation! We killed ourselves to try to ruin that innovation!”

Carney has an interesting description of the filmmaker that he spent years studying. “There is no question that he is one of the great twentieth-century artists – in any medium. He was a visionary and a dreamer, a passionate, nonstop talker who was exciting to listen to. He was a born charmer, with the charisma of a Svengali. People loved to be around him. They basked in his energy. He inspired them and could talk people into doing seemingly anything. It took those qualities to make the movies. He had to throw a lot of magic dust around to keep people working long hours without pay. He had to play with their souls to motivate them.“But as I dug deeper, I was forced to recognize that you can't have the positive without the negative, the virtues without the corresponding vices. Cassavetes was a super-salesman, a Pied Piper, a guru – but he was also most of the other things that come with the territory. He was a con-man. He would say or do almost anything to further his ends. He'd lie to you, steal from you, cheat you if necessary. He could be a terror if you got in his way. If he liked you or needed you, he was a dream – kind, thoughtful, generous; if you crossed him, he was your worst nightmare.”

The film is preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1993 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The picture’s restoration version (the one viewed on HBO Max) features the following pre-film statement: “SHADOWS (Cassavetes’ release version, 1959) has been restored from the original 16mm negative, a 35mm duplicate negative, and a 35mm positive print. The original elements are in extremely poor condition. This print integrates selected sequences utilizing digital picture restoration tools. An alternate version has been made using solely analog picture restoration methods.” The HFPA and The Film Foundation are credited with funding the restoration.


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