John Cassavetes' startling directorial debut changed American movies forever.
If American independent cinema could be said to have a birthday, Nov. 11 is as good a date to celebrate as any. On that night 50 years ago, John Cassavetes, an actor then best known for his TV roles, unveiled for a downtown New York audience his directing debut, Shadows. Cassavetes had financed the production with his paychecks from Hollywood and made the film with a cast and crew of novice actors from his drama workshop. The finished product betrayed their inexperience: mismatched cuts, shots out of focus, audio out of sync. But it was also unlike anything audiences had seen before: a raw, kinetic, jazz-scored dispatch from bohemian New York that was frank about sex, progressive on race, and intoxicated with youth. The film radiated a sense of urgency, even desperation—it felt like something Cassavetes just had to get out of his system.
Beyond any of its singular qualities—its searing immediacy, its disarming realness—Shadows' very existence is its biggest legacy. Wearing its DIY ethos proudly, the movie hacked a path that artists suspicious of Hollywood (that is, if they could get in the door at all) would later follow. After its New York debut, the movie won acclaim on the international circuit, drawing crowds in London and Paris and winning a critics' award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. It was eventually released commercially in the United States in 1961, with the New York Times' Bosley Crowther calling it "unfinished" but "fitfully dynamic, endowed with a raw but vibrant strength, conveying an illusion of being a record of real people, and it is incontestably sincere."
Cassavetes' movie not only anticipated Mean Streets, Stranger Than Paradise, She's Gotta Have It, and Slacker, among countless others—it helped will them into being. As Martin Scorsese noted, after Shadows, there were "no more excuses" for aspiring filmmakers: "If he could do it, so could we!" And yet 50 years after its release, Shadows is a forgotten movie, revered by cultists, critics, and historians but neglected by a culture on which it has had a profound influence.
The movie immerses you in its world from the get-go. The opening credits scroll over a raucous rave-up in a cramped apartment, with revelers—white and black—boozing and singing along to an impromptu jam. Without a word of dialogue the demimonde is established—this is not Don Draper's Manhattan. Shadows centers on three siblings: Benny (Ben Carruthers), a brooding beatnik and unemployed trumpet player; Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the innocent little sister who puts up a worldly front; and Hughie (Hugh Hurd), the oldest and a struggling jazz musician. The three are African-American, but only Hughie looks it—both Benny and Lelia are light-skinned enough to pass for white.
Although it might eschew a conventional plot, Shadows is hardly uninterested in storytelling. Narrative springs organically from character and circumstance. When we first meet Hughie, he and his friend and manager, Rupert (Rupert Crosse), are negotiating a deal for his next gig, a demeaning spot opening for a tone-deaf chorus line:
Meanwhile, Lelia meets smooth-talking Tony (Tony Ray) at a party, leading to her first sexual encounter. Considering that this was the year of Pillow Talk and A Summer Place, their post-coitus exchange is startlingly frank:
The trauma of her first time notwithstanding, Lelia falls for Tony. But when Tony meets Hughie—and realizes that he is, in fact, dating a black girl—the shock is too much, and Tony flees in confusion.
Elbert Ventura is managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.