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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Shadows

Many people consider John Cassavetes' directorial debut, Shadows, the first American independent film. Released in 1959, it was filmed guerrilla-style in New York City, the funds raised in an early form of crowd-funding when Cassavetes went on the radio and said that if people sent him money, he could make a better film than the one he had just starred in. He got the money.

The result is far from anything Hollywood produced. Primitively shot, improvised, and dealing with interracial relationships, Shadows thrums along to its jazz soundtrack, following characters who are like the title objects, flitting in and out of darkness.

The loose plot deals with three black siblings. Bennie (Ben Carruthers) is a musician who hangs out with a couple of white guys and generally just goofs around (if one looks hard enough, there is an implication that he's on junk). His brother Hugh (Hugh Hurd) is a singer, but he's subjected to the indignity of working in a burlesque house and forced to introduce the girls. When he does sing, he's interrupted halfway through the song by the talentless chorus line. Finally, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), is a twenty-year-old girl who could pass for white (Goldoni is, in fact, Sicilian). She's being courted by a white intellectual, who wants her to write, but she ends up with a slick operator named Tony, who takes her virginity.

The plot turns when Tony visits Lelia's apartment and realizes she's black. He doesn't handle it well, and Hugh throws him out. She's set up on a date with a black man, but she treats him rudely until she finally breaks down in his arms at dance hall.

The interracial aspect must have been a shock to those who didn't live in big cities (but there were probably few of those viewers who qualified). But beyond that, the aimlessness of the character of Bennie may have also raised eyebrows. It reminded me some of what Martin Scorsese would do in his early films, especially Mean Streets.

The acting is a bit amateurish. Goldoni, in particular, struggles. The only performer who went on to greater things was Rupert Crosse, who played Hugh's manager and best friend. Crosse was the first African American to be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, in 1969 for The Reivers.

Cassavetes would go on to act in Hollywood films so he could use the money to make independent films. As such, he is an extremely important figure in American film history. Shadows is rough around the edges, but worth seeing.

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