SHADOWS (1959) directed by John Cassavetes is purely a film about people. People struggling as artists all of which are three siblings of African-American decent; Benny (Ben Carruthers), is a wandering beatnik, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the little sister trying to find her creative vein and Hugh (Hugh Hurd), the older brother who’s a jazz singer. The lives of these three intersect through problematic circumstances such as Hugh not getting the respected gigs he feels he deserves or Lelia feeling apprehensive of the path her love life has taken all hindered by the conflict of race and perhaps just bad luck.
The opening sequence is intimate and breaks the barrier of personal space as the camera blazes through a room crammed of people dancing like squished sardines but are having a “whale of a time” nonetheless. The camera also captures Benny climbing over bodies of these dancing crazed loons squeezing in between them to isolate himself in a shadowy corner of the room simply observing and not partaking is a vigorous preamble for what’s to come or is there really any correlation?
The most prominent scene is when Hugh returns from his trip to meet Lelia’s new lover, Tony while the abrupt pacing, jump cuts, close ups, and facial expressions of the actors all articulate the unmentionable racism that lurks beneath the shadows of humanity. It invokes a sense of shame intertwined with this uneasy dizziness to escape the crescendo of a moment. There’s a vast symmetry to this moment specifically with the film, THE WORLD, THE FLESH, AND THE DEVIL (1959) where Harry Belafonte’s character develops a close friendship with Inger Stevens character which is later muddled up when Benson (Mel Ferrer) who’s white totally distorts the civility of their unity all in the midst of nuclear holocaust. It’s a great film, but also received some controversy for none other than the conflict of race which predominantly and unfortunately still exists.
SHADOWS is an American independent film that stepped outside of its box in terms of discarding the skin known as the Hollywood studio system and did something more visceral, without top of the line Big Wigs, and most importantly something warm and imperfect. SHADOWS has a soul wrenched with clashing ideologies and layers of complexity and it has jazz. Jazz is certainly the cherry to this out of focus, out of sync, divine, rhythmic, black and white mismatched madness. (Say that five times fast) Personally, I saw SHADOWS as an ecstatic force of energy, of spastic convulsion between desperation and perseverance. Its an intimate depiction of problematic tension resulting in measured shouting matches and smooth rhythms that articulate a need for resolve. Just as the rhythm of jazz pulsates through each scene coupling an undertone of intensity, it reminded me of the composer, George Gershwin’s quote, “Life is a lot like jazz, its best when improvised.”