Directed by John Cassavetes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 81 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: February 17, 2009
Review Date: February 14, 2009
John Cassavetes’ Shadows must have seemed revolutionary in 1959. A miniscule budgeted, completely improvised character study filmed in 16mm in the streets of New York with a tiny crew, it had none of the slickness or polish of a studio production. Like Italian neorealism and the French New Wave, this film strived for a rough, blistering look and feel of the raw, brutal streets, and it certainly achieved those aims. After decades of this kind of in-your-face filmmaking, Shadows today seems somewhat lacking. With no interest in telling a formal story or exploring characters in any real depth, the filmmaker and his movie jump gracelessly from one awkward scene to the next often irritating us with mostly charmless, needlessly garish behavior. The tone is right, and the look is to be savored, but the pity is that the director couldn’t round up a more talented bunch of improvisational actors to take the film’s gritty mise en scène and spice it up with some interesting conversation and more believable characters.
Three African-American siblings are finding the mean streets of New York City often daunting to their personal and professional happiness. Hugh (Hugh Hurd) is eeking out a living as a singer in low class dives out of the city, humbled when the music director cuts his solo to one chorus so he can introduce a line of low-rent showgirls. Ben (Ben Carruthers) is palling around the city streets with two irresponsible cronies (Tom Allen, Dennis Sallas) but seems aimless and disconnected. Lelia (Leila Goldoni) is blossoming into womanhood and being pursued by a white man (Anthony Ray) whom brother Hugh disapproves of.
Though the movie’s dialog was famously improvised and allegedly not based on any scripted talk, the bonus features reveal that between the first and second shoots (a year apart), Cassavetes did indeed fashion a script which explains why the film’s overwhelmingly best scene (the morning after confessional of Lelia’s virginal deflowering) plays so much better than so many other moments in the movie. This is raw, lacerating stuff, and it feels real. So many other moments of the film, despite being filmed directly on the streets and on makeshift sets at Cassavetes’ workshop, seem awkward and painfully strained with self-conscious conversations that never seem true-to-life (case in point: the actors often rely on repeating the names of the characters they‘re talking to over and over in the same scene. Who does that in real life?) The film’s very uniqueness is often its downfall since the actors’ improvisations just don’t often jell, or, if there’s a spark of truth or a doorway to decent discussion introduced at a certain moment in their free-wheeling speech, it isn’t pursued thus making the movie seem more surface edgy rather than penetratingly revelatory. One aches for more discussion, more in-depth reflection on what they’re feeling, what they’re needing. But their actors’ instincts simply let them down, and Cassavetes in his first effort as a director doesn’t seem willing or able to make his actors explore their feelings in any more depth. What he does do, however, is jam the cameras into the faces of his actors, film scenes from odd angles, and shoot some moments marvelously well (a beat down of the three buddies in a darkened alley is especially involving shot shockingly up close.)
Some of the actors here went on to successful careers, but they don’t always appear to great advantage in this picture. Especially constricted by the lack of a script and firm direction are Hugh Hurd and Ben Carruthers (though there does seem to be a lot of anger brimming just under Carruthers' surface; too bad he doesn‘t tap into it very often). Lelia Goldoni has both good and bad moments, perhaps exemplifying that the year’s break between shoots helped her gain some experience and polish. Anthony Ray’s Tony is the film’s most affecting character, alternately tantalizing and tender toward Lelia and genuinely devastated by her dismissal of him. Rupert Crosse, later to earn an Oscar nomination for his work in The Reivers, has some good scenes as Hugh’s determined manager.
The film underwent an extensive restoration in 2002 to bring it back from the brink of oblivion, but decisions were made then that certain artifacts (some dirt, hairs) would be retained to keep the film from looking untrue to its 16mm streetwise origins. This is the same 1.33:1 transfer that was used in Criterion’s previous 2004 issue of the film and thus is not windowboxed (except for the credits). The hairs, specks, and scratches are the same ones that were there the last time around, and the film’s sharpness is average. However, contrast is dialed to make a pleasing, involving image that nevertheless looks every bit of its fifty years. The film is divided into 11 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is the same low tech marvel it’s always been. Blissfully free from hiss, pops, crackle, or flutter, the listener will easily be able to ascertain which lines were recorded directly and which were ADR produced. The bluesy saxophone riffs of Shafi Hadi come through with all their low fidelity impact intact.
Two video interviews are present on the disc, both filmed in 2004 for the previous release of the film on DVD. Actress Lelia Goldoni talks for 11 ½ minutes on her memories of working with Cassavetes and remembers how the film took shape over its two year production period. Actor Seymour Cassel who made a cameo appearance on the movie but assisted behind-the-scenes as associate producer speaks for 4 ½ minutes about how he met Cassavetes and came to work on the movie. Both interviews are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
There is rare silent 16mm footage at Cassavetes and Burt Lane’s acting workshop as the film was beginning to take shape. A couple of actors who ended up in the finished film can be glimpsed briefly in this 4 ¼ minutes of footage.
The liner notes call it a restoration demonstration, but it’s actually an 11-minute documentary on the restoration of the film at UCLA by Ross Lipman showing how the movie was rescued from extreme deterioration by the dedicated film historian and how decisions were made about how the finished product should look. It’s the best bonus feature in the set.
A stills gallery offers 67 snapshots of behind-the-scenes activity during filming and during recording sessions for the music soundtrack to the picture. There are also some text-based pages explaining what the next series of stills is to be about.
A theatrical trailer for the movie which trumpets the film’s critical plaudits runs 2 ¾ minutes in 4:3.
The enclosed 17-page booklet features cast and crew lists, a think piece on the film by entertainment writer Gary Giddins, and a 1961 piece for Films and Filming written by John Cassavetes.
True independent filmmaking can trace its roots to John Cassavetes’ Shadows. Despite its amateurishness and crudity as a film piece, the film deserves to be seen and its good bits savored. For those who have been waiting for the DVD to come back in print, your wishes have now been granted.