John Cassavetes (1929–1989) was a unique figure in the history of the American cinema, moving comfortably in Hollywood, but also a seminal director in what we now think of as independent film. Shadows is a central work in this indie movement.
Cassavetes’ acting career throughout the 1950s was mostly in television, although he had prominent roles in such films as Andrew L. Stone’s The Night Holds Terror; Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets (he reunited with Siegel for The Killers in 1964); and Edge of the City, Martin Ritt’s debut film, which costarred Sidney Poitier. The latter established Cassavetes as an important player in the Civil Rights struggle, paving the way for the brave and trailblazing elements in Shadows—depicting relationships across racial lines—before the birth of President Obama. Throughout his all-too-brief lifespan, Cassavetes remained a stalwart supporter of integration, equality, and African-American culture (especially jazz).
In 1957, emulating the Italian Neorealists of the previous decade, Cassavetes directed an extremely low-budget version of Shadows that was believed to be lost until its rediscovery a decade ago by biographer Ray Carney. (The version we are showing today was shot in 1959, and won the Critics Award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival.) Jonas Mekas, who became a kind of doyen of the independent film movement, promoted the original version of Shadows in The Village Voice and helped establish Cassavetes’ reputation as a director, but Mekas considered the second version “bastardized.” Cassavetes apparently preferred the second version, shot in 16mm at New York locations including The Museum of Modern Art. (Cassavetes shared his New York roots with pioneer directors like Raoul Walsh and George Cukor, although his family had taken him as a child to live in Greece for seven years, making English, in effect, his second language.)
Whereas Shadows is brief and compact, many of the director’s later films are much longer and, arguably, overly indulgent to his performers. In the immediate aftermath of Shadows and its acclaim, Cassavetes directed two sensitive but fairly conventional films with Hollywood stars: Too Late Blues, with Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens, and A Child Is Waiting, with Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland. It was only with his later films, I think, that the real Cassavetes—actor, graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Art, Stanislavski disciple—emerged as a full-blown auteur. Although Shadows had been improvised, the later films are scripted. Thus, Cassavetes’ stylistic contribution was in granting his actors the right to be creative in their performance and character development within the constraints of script. This increasingly led to longer and longer films (Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, Love Streams) in which the director allowed folks like his wife Gena Rowlands and friends Ben Gazarra and Peter Falk to do their thing. No one could argue that they were without talent, but the films seemed to take on an obsessive quality not to everyone’s taste.
Some have compared Cassavetes with Orson Welles, using his acting skills and personal charisma to earn funds to support his directorial career. He was never a conventional leading man, but he seemed at home in Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen, Brian De Palma’s The Fury, and most notably Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. Cassavetes, however, saw the cinema differently from Welles. Welles had been a man of the theater himself, but he recognized that the movies were primarily a visual medium. Welles’s films are littered with deeply felt, superb performances (a partial list would include Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Jeanne Moreau, and Welles himself), but he never lost sight of the importance of the imagery, even when he was filming Shakespeare. Cassavetes explicitly rejected this: “People who are making films today are too concerned with mechanics—technical things instead of feeling.” You pays your money, and you takes your choice.