There is a statement at the end of the 1959 (second) version of John Cassavetes’s break-out independent movie “Shadows” that the movie was an improvisation. This is misleading. The characters were developed in a workshop, but most everything was written down (scripted). In an interview of the female lead, Lelia Goldini, on the Criterion Collection DVD, she says that Cassavetes wrote the memorable lines she said in the scene in bed after she has been deflowered (after Tony Ray says that if he’d known she was a virgin he’d never have touched [let alone bedded?] her, Cassavetes wrote the devastating lines she said, starting with “I didn’t know it would be so awful.” This scene, one of those show in 1958 (after the release of an earlier 1957 version) is for me not only the fulcrum of the story of three Negro (to use the word in use then) siblings, one very black (Ben Carruthers), one passing as white ((Lelia Goldini) and the third ((Hugh Hurd ) hanging out with white fellow deadbeats, but not obviously to me passing as white (hardly an advantage for a would-be jazz musician!).
Ben has professional frustrations: a stalled career as a singer with the new indignity of being required to introduce “the floozies,” untalented showgirls. Hugh and his buddies get beaten up after trying to poach some women in a diner (and after visiting the sculpture garden of MOMA in a scene I suspect inspired the dash through the Louvre in Godard’s “Bande à part”). Hurd has an interesting face, but his character does little beyond anguished frustration. Carruthers’s character is more developed, and Goldini’s is the most developed.
Not that it’s easy to like Lelia, despite feeling her disappointment and bafflement about her first sexual experience. She is so blunt and deflating that it is difficult not to sympathize with Tony. He suggests that it will be easier (less painful) the next time, and she says there will be no next time. Thorougly deflated, he is then confronted with the question of her moving in with him. “Don’t touch me”, “There won’t be a next time,” AND “Should I move in”? Who would not be flummoxed?
She wants to get dressed and go home and, from a combination of gallantry and befuddlement, Tony takes her home in a taxi and insists on going up with her. The taxi-driver is frustrated by the debate about whether Tony should go away in the taxi (Leilia’s suggestion) or go up with her (I’m not sure why Tony wants that or thinks he should!).
They are dancing to a record when Ben and his manager come in. Ben is unmistakably black and one can see the shocked dismay on Tony’s face that he has unknowingly had sex with not only a virgin, but a black woman (aged 20). And the viewer can see Ben and his manager (Rupert Crosse [great later in “The Reivers”]) understand that Tony didn’t know and is appalled. Tony later regrets his reaction, returns the next night to a party Ben is throwing, and is thrown out of the apartment again. And Leilia goes on to torture another date, this one black (I left out her literally running out on an earlier white guy she had been hanging out with). Again, after being cutting (and for the era, very pushy a ball-breaker), she softens in dancing with her head on her date’s shoulder.
The representation of Leilia and her three suitors is raw, even now, and it is the middle third of the movie that I think is great. The first and last third are more like what I don’t like in Cassavetes movies: characters spinning their wheels. I enjoyed Rupert’s attempts to get Ben to go along, and Ben eventually coaxing his manager back on board (literally, on board – on a bus to Chicago).
The Criterion DVD has interviews with Leilia Goldini and Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassels (who was credited as co-producer of “Shadows” and had an uncredited appearance onscreen… as did Cassavetes’s later muse and wife, Gena Rowlands); showcasing Rowlands is what I generally like most in Cassavetes movies). There’s also some silent home-movie footage of the Cassavetes workshop, and a featurette about the restoration (I’m pretty sure that the DVD picture is superior to the film’s première’s). The DVD booklet has a very informative essayby Garry Giddins is online at www.criterion.com/current/posts/339-shadows-eternal-times-square and a reprinting of a 1961 by Cassavets.
The “introspective jazz” (very late-1950s) music is intrusive, but not uninteresting, going with the late-50s automobiles and the late-50s “neon wilderness” of Times Square through which Leilia wanders early on. (Cassavetes tried to get Charlie Mingus to improvise music, but Mingus wanted to write a musical score and did very little. What’s heard is mostly saxophonist Shafi Hadi.