Shadows Review

This title is currently available only as part of Optimum's The John Cassavetes Collection boxed set.

As captured on the New York streets, Shadows inadvertently offers us a guide to the movies that were screening in theatres and adorning posters at the time. This being the late fifties, Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember puts in an appearance as do various pieces of fluff from the likes of Rock Hudson and Dean Martin. And then there’s this particular film going on, literally and figuratively, right outside of them, offering a different, more forceful mode of expression. Indeed, you have to appreciate John Cassavetes’ guts in getting it made; you can imagine his slogging it out for every last cent of the budget or fearlessly – and illegally – capturing the exterior shots when not borrowing friends’ apartments. Certainly, there’s a brashness which seeps through and infuses Shadows with a nervous energy. It’s a film in which its characters seemingly live on a diet of black coffee, cigarettes and book – and no doubt they fuelled its production too.

Not that it seems especially stylistically strange today - its techniques have since been co-opted by the mainstream and the experimental nature no longer remains as palpable. Nor is its plot especially out there – just three siblings going about their respective businesses over a few days. And yet this shouldn’t mean that it doesn’t matter today. Indeed, it works as a less self-conscious cousin to contemporaries such as Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy or Jean-Luc Godard’s earliest experiences with a camera: Charlotte et son Jules, Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick and, of course, A bout de souffle. There are fewer ulterior motives, just a need to capture the essence of New York and those who inhabit it.

What this means is that Cassavetes is effectively free to go where he chooses. He doesn’t have any kind of strict narrative to adhere to and so just hangs out with his characters for as long as he sees fit. Scenes aren’t dictated by any kind of great need (certainly not to tell a story), just the possibility that he might capture something. Indeed, such is Shadows free-flowing nature that you feel it could go on for another hour or two, or have existed in much shorter form – the important element is that Cassavetes is creating an environment in which such things may happen.

As such we’re given a mere impression, one which leaves us to take what we will from it. Certainly, we aren’t pointed in any particular directions and therefore don’t even have to feel obliged to like everything about it. There’s an element of goofing off to the improvisation that can be a little hard to stomach (as though events from behind the camera are leaking into those on film) and it can all get a little too loud (but then it is a New York movie), yet for all this Cassavetes has created a perfect place for the drama when it does arrive. Watching the simplest of things – a kiss in a doorway, a throwaway reaction shot – is like experiencing them for the first time such is the directness in which they’re being communicated.

Just as important is the fact that it’s an environment where anything can happen. The jump cuts, jittery edge and jazz score (in part courtesy of the great Charlie Mingus) all conspire to keep us – and those onscreen – permanently in thrall of something potentially spilling over and changing everything. Of course, these may be major incidents or they may be minor, but either way Cassavetes has us firmly in his grasp. Indeed, it can only be a great shame that it took him another nine years until he could do it again – following studio flicks Too Late Blues (though it deserves a far better reputation) and A Child is Waiting - so successfully with Faces.

The Disc

Shadows comes to Region 2 DVD in the condition you’d expect from such a film. Shot in black and white and on 16mm film, it presents a healthy dose of grain and is a little rough around the edges, but this is exactly how it should be. Importantly, the image is a sharp as the film stock allows for and the contrast levels are absolutely spot on. Likewise, the audio (in the original mono, albeit spread over the front two channels) has the requisite clarity for such a film, and is certainly clear enough to notice the various overdubs.

As for extras, Shadows comes with some brief silent footage of Cassavetes improvisation workshops and a commentary by Tom Charity (author of John Cassavetes: Lifeworks) and Seymour Cassel, who served as associate producer on the film and made the most fleeting of uncredited appearances, though he would of course go on to more substantial roles for the director. Whilst the former piece is certainly interesting (it’s impossible to tell what’s acting and what’s just plain documentary footage), it’s the latter which makes the disc worthwhile. A fine double act, Charity and Cassel, given their differing approaches to the film, are able to cover a great deal of ground. Charity focuses in on comparing this release version to the one made the previous year and then discarded from Cassavetes, whilst Cassel offers his reminiscences from the production and latter collaborations. Importantly, however, there’s also a great deal of humour, not least when Cassel refuses to believe anything that Charity says: “Where do you get this bullshit from?”

As with main feature, the commentary comes without optional subtitles.

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