John Cassavetes' first film, Shadows (1959), is something of a mutation, and that is not a criticism. Cassavetes screened Shadows in 1957 and 1958, but the reception to it at screenings was so poor he reshot approximately half of the film. The original cut is reportedly lost. At the end of the film, the words "The film you have just seen was improvised" appear. How much so remains a source of question, however. Evidently, it was the original cut that was practically all improvisational, growing out of acting improvs. After largely bombing in its screenings, Cassavetes went to work at a partial screenplay for numerous scenes for two years. Shadows in this form, however, received a good deal of acclaim when it was released in 1959.
The film remains remarkably supple, its apparent claim to being more or less wholly improvisational notwithstanding. The plot, if it can even be called such, is simple and quite "unstructured"--characters weave in and out, are summarily dismissed from the proceedings with some returning only quite late. Cassavetes deserves so much credit for his daring contribution to American cinema, which was to work outside the studio system--as early as the mid-1950s with his first directorial effort--experimenting with the art of film in an anarchic, free-spirited cinematic philosophy similar to Jean-Luc Godard, Fracois Truffaut and other Nouvelle Vague representatives in France.
Feeling like a warmer, even more pared-down cousin of Stanley Kubrick's Killer's Kiss (1955) and Martin Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door?/I Call First (1967), Cassavetes' New York City-based drama--widely considered the forerunner of the American independent film movement--defiantly irrupts itself into our consciousness with its jazzy soundtrack, beatnik hangouts and hip zoot suits, recalling an era that was both sedated and tumultuous, a kind of peaceful but uneasy time and place that seems so distant and yet so near. Cassavetes' camera behaves like a pervicacious, clear-eyed observer amidst groups of people speaking to one another like real people, without impatience and only some discrimination.
Hugh (Hugh Hurd), Ben (Ben Carruthers) and Dennis (Dennis Sallas) are three brothers. They have a sister named Lelia (Lelia Gordoni). Hugh is a dark-skinned black, and Dennis is conspicuously black as well, while Ben and Lelia are quite light-skinned. Hugh is older than his siblings--his intelligence and self-knowledge as a talented but down-on-his-luck jazz singer has left him at least somewhat embittered. Ben is an angry young man, volatile in his overprotectiveness towards Lelia. Dennis is humorous and intellectual in his reasoning, and frequently tries to play some kind of peacemaker between family members. Lelia, meanwhile, is honestly the film's center, certainly emotionally speaking.
Lelia finds herself in a romantic entanglement with Tony, a white fellow, played with a greater sense of actorly self-awareness (and perhaps even the slightest bit of unfortunate self-congratulatory on his part) by Anthony Ray (son of director Nicholas Ray). At first, Cassavetes playfully throws scenes at us that today look like rip-offs from the French New Wave, particularly Godard and Truffaut (Breathless and Jules et Jim both feel borrowed from--but they aren't at all, as the release date of Shadows will attest to), with Tony and Lelia frolicking through Central Park. However, the situation eventually descends into a (fortunately relatively brief, for the sake of the viewer) stretch of psychodrama: rarely has an act of indiscretion been made more heartbreakingly true and powerfully painful than an excruciating scene of dialogue with Tony and Lelia resting abed, he trying to sound comforting despite the thinness of his personal, genuine understanding and empathy, she unabashed in her earnest appraisal of their physical encounter.
For a directorial debut, this is particularly sensitive and feels strangely haunted, perhaps wounded in its outlook. Characters make mistakes that feel palpably, terribly real. Cassavetes does not judge, but neither does he merely meekly acquit them, either. When one behaves like an inconsiderate and wrongheaded jerk, Cassavetes lets us first muster legitimate anger, and then see the cracks develop that invite empathy. Are we so confident as to suggest we would behave entirely differently? Cassavetes' cinema seems informed by the fact that each life is brimming with mistakes, both innocent and sinful ones. In A Woman Under the Influence, just for one deeply troubling, penetratingly sad example, Peter Falk's Nick Longhetti may not be primarily responsible for the disintegration of his wife, Mabel, but when he barks at her he knows he could have, should have, would have, been a better husband if not for the eternally available misbegotten conjunction but. So it is for Cassavetes' characters, and it was a reality from Shadows onward.
Shadows is not a great film, but it represents the birth of Cassavetes' filmmaking journey, a journey that ushered in something of an American New Wave, which--unlike Cassavetes, who would frequently continue to stay far outside the studio system, financing his own films to the breaking point himself, and booking theatrical exhibitions on his own, travelling across the country in some cases in order to show his newest film to audiences--was in the dire times of the mid- and late-'60s, given the keys to the Hollywood castle to "remake" Hollywood as an artistic haven. Cassavetes himself, though, never wavered and he made films of such unbridled humanism as even the Stanley Kramer-produced drama that he wished to dissociate himself from, A Child is Waiting and the equally tender and robust humor of Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz and the harrowing, probing character studies A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
From the complex, resonant depiction of white-black love and misunderstanding in Shadows to more of the same, this time made both whole and more complicated in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes carried with him a reckless but halcyon, daring but contemplative outlook on many social issues made personal by thoroughly realistic characters. When Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) goes to a payphone after having a tire blow out on the freeway before executing the titular Chinese bookie to check in on what is happening at his strip club while he is away, we do not question it--the act makes sense because to Vitelli it is what matters. Just as when Hugh whines and complains about having to introduce a group of dancing and singing girls at a club to make end's meet, declaring that he will not go through with it, we understand. Cassavetes understands the obsessions we all have--normally rooted in half-pride, half-defensiveness, both vain and necessary--that mask our despair. And through the indelible lifelike imagery he renders, he makes us understand, whether we want to or not.