Shadows (1959)


Directed by John Cassavetes

I think there is more to say about this film as a technical experiment than as a self-contained story.  It’s highly improvisational, though I’m not entirely sure how much.  The reason I watched this film was because of the amount of improvisation, and the influence this has had on many other filmmakers.  Despite some wandering in the story, it feels very tight and compact like scripted films.  The scenes don’t drag on too long, except for a couple scenes, and the three sort of protagonists all have their own arc.

What I like about improvised films are the little moments that may go unnoticed but that would be near impossible to capture with a standard script.  It might just be a smile or a misspoken word, but I always find these moments engaging.  Improvisation in film like this most often occurs within a set structure.  For example, the comedies of Judd Apatow and Adam McKay feature a lot of improv, but only in certain amounts when they need or want a joke.  There is a script, and in the script there might be a section where a Will Ferrell or Seth Rogen character goes on a rant.  Much of that rant might be improvised, but the rant was always in the script.

Filmmakers like Lynn Shelton, the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg make films with a greater degree of improv.  Again, the structure is more or less in place, but instead of improvising a couple lines, they’ll improvise the entire scene.  The script might say “Remi and Allie get into a fight,” and the actors have to find a way to get from point A, not fighting to point B, at each other’s throats.

Shadows feels more like a blend of those two films, but based on what I know about the production of the film, it was much more like the latter types of films.  Cassavetes said that he worked off of an outline, and he refilmed parts of the story once the actors got a better sense of their characters.  There’s a moment in the film where Ben (Ben Carruthers) and two friends go to a diner and hit on three women.  There are three sets of pairs now, and we cut between their conversations.  This is when you can see the improvisation, and I imagine director John Cassavetes told the three men to just try to pick up the women and take them home.  One guy comes it at the situation by telling the girl that she’s hear to be picked up, that’s why the women are out and why the men are out.  So that reasoning was probably made up on the spot.

If you’re writing a scene, you know what the purpose is.  Your character wants something and tries to get it a certain way.  When you write the dialogue, alone in a room at a computer, you’re improvising the scene.  Then you simply go back and rework and polish it.

Improvised films are very rough, however.  Because of the need to capture the magic as it’s happening, the camera lingers a little more, following rather than leading.  Think of the great cinematic shots you’ve seen in movie history.  Whether the camera is moving like the tracking shot in Goodfellas or it’s simply still, creating a moving painting, those shots are not in films like this one.  Because you might not know how or where the characters will move while the camera is running, you have to light the scene to cover as much space as possible.  This means less stylish lighting and a more broad lighting style, only ensuring that you can see what you’re meant to see without considering exactly how the light pattern should relate to what’s happening.

Everything is secondary to the performance, and that’s what these types of films are about.  That’s what Shadows is about, so returning to Cassavetes and the production of this film…

Cassavetes taught an acting class, and one of the acting exercises was a scenario integral to the story of this film.  In that exercise, a white man realized that the woman he’s dating is black, after meeting her black brother.

So, the story follows three siblings: Ben, Leila and Hue.  Leila and Ben are light-skinned black, blurring the lines between racial identities.  The film, however, is not about the color of their skin outside of a particular moment between Leila and a white man she briefly dates.

Ben and Hue are struggling Jazz musicians.  Hue hates his current work, playing at night clubs and introducing a line of pop singing women.  Ben doesn’t really play much music.  Instead he goes out with his pals to pick up women and get in fights.  By the end of the film, after a particularly brutal fight, he decides to quit his ways and grow up.

Leila has three separate romantic relationships, and she loses her virginity to the white man who later acts a bit inappropriately after discovering that Leila is black.  After that break up she goes into a brief depression before being set up with a young black man whom she strings along, taking her anger out on him.  He sticks around, though, and they end up happy together (it seems).

Hue, constantly frustrated by the way his career has worked out, gets into a fight with his friend and manager before they hug it out and keep chugging along.

The film starts and ends with Ben.  When I think about the story arc of each character, it feels uplifting, but when the film ended I didn’t get the sense that anything good had happened.  The film itself is grimy, partially because of the technology and rough filming style and partially because of an acting style (plenty of silence) that we’re not used to in movies.  Those silences helped ground the story, and life itself isn’t always so happy.  So maybe it’s because these characters felt more realistic than many movie characters from the 50s that when the story ended, I expected life to just continue as it does normally, with ups and downs.


The lasting effect of this film isn’t where each character ends up, but rather how they got there.  When I think of Leila, I think of her in bed with the temporary white boyfriend, struggling with how to feel, having expected to feel one with the man she slept with but instead feeling miles away from him.  Her struggle is completely internal, and she conveys it through what she says and mostly through her silence.

With Ben, I picture him silently stalking the party at the beginning of the film.  We often see him staggering around the screen, reacting against the world more than taking any kind of initiative.  In other words he is a punching bag.  And with Hue, I remember him more from his screen time with Leila, comforting her in a time of need.  He’s a strong, protective older brother, and I’m left with more thoughts on his role as a supporting character to Leila’s story than I am with him as the main character in his own story.

Look, none of my opinions matter on each character’s story, but what does matter is that there was some kind of journey, and it mattered more than the end of the story.  The film is built on the path it walks, because the end is fairly conventional, but the way it got there was groundbreaking.  Improv helped center the film around the performances, not on plot twists, action set pieces or violence.  The performances drove the story, and the action was all a consequence of their choices.  I’m dragging on here, but there are plenty of films that are built around car chases or battle sequences, and the characters are written to get the story to those scenes.  The script starts outward and works in, filling in the necessary blanks.  It’s all leading somewhere.  In Shadows, though, the story starts within, not just with the characters, but deep within those characters, understanding how they think and perceive the world.  Then their improvised actions create the conflict that justifies the movie’s existence.

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