Catching up with Cassavetes: #1 – “Shadows” (1959)

shadows2We all have our crosses to bear. Mine is not having seen a single directed film of John Cassavetes‘ (yeah, my life is tough. I know). Until now that is. One by one, I plan on making my way through this man’s filmography with the hopes of discovering, like many have done before me, the reasons behind all the praises I’ve been hearing for this director. First up, his 1959 debut film, Shadows.

What follows is a love letter that I wrote to Shadows.

Well, hello John CassavetesShadows. You want to tell me where the hell you’ve been all my life? Now usually, I don’t say this after being together for only 81 minutes, but I just can’t help myself. I love you.

I love that I can admire you the exact same way I would a more meticulously orchestrated film. For example, stylistically speaking, you are the polar opposite of the painfully detailed, symmetry and dolly moving long takes of Stanley Kubrick‘s WWI masterpiece, Paths of Glory (made two years before you were even born). Yet, even though your seemingly loosy goosey style is a bit unconventional (maybe not so much now, but definitely back in 1959) and nowhere near anything resembling a Kubrick film, you too are a masterpiece. In fact, my admiration for you is like that of someone admiring an unconventional steel sculpture of a robustly naked and seemingly hideous woman in a garden of more “conventional” art, art made to look pretty and be understood as such upon ones first contact with it. What I’m trying to say here is this; I love the way you are put together, and you should never change.

I love your improvisational style of acting. I love the brilliant way in which this acting compliments its 1950s cooler than cool Charles Mingus-ified jazzy score. I love the even more brilliant way in which damn near every angle, movement, and placement of your camera reflects the mood of both the score and the actors. The acting, filming, and score are all set perfectly to your story and overall mood. It’s a cinematic trifecta, if ever there was one.

And speaking of threes, I love your three racially mixed central characters, Ben, Lelia and Hugh. I love how fully formed all three of them are. They each have their own arc, and not only are their arcs believable ones, but your presentation of each character is so that I was able to fully invest myself in their stories. I actually cared for them. This is something most other character driven films often take for granted. Not you though. You sure do know how to hold my attention.

Oh, and one more thing, I love how you can be so funny one moment and then, wham, super dramatic and tense the next. And through it all you never feel awkward or out of step with the overall flow of the film. Everything about you feels authentic. I guess that’s a result of great improv actors trusting a visionary director’s instinct.

Like I said before, Shadows, I love you, and I’m looking forward to seeing you again… soon.

Loyally yours,



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Categories: Reviews


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