Friday, 1 August 2008

SHADOWS (1959)

This film is very special to me for several reasons. I saw it when I was still at school and it was one of the first "grown up" films I chose for myself. I remember that when my friend Brian and I came outof the cinema we couldn't stop talking about it. We found the whole style of the film exciting and fresh - so different from the, mainly, Hollywood product we had been exposed to. We were both just beginning to explore the wide world of cinema thanks to the Holloway School Film Society and seeing the film again after all these years made me re-live some of the excitement of those days. On a more personal level I was captivated by the actress Lelia Goldoni, not only for her beautiful eyes and engaging smile but because I was going out with a girl who looked just like her (oh, Elaine Weston, where are you now?).

John Cassavetes occupies a niche all of his own in American film history. Like Orson Welles before him Cassavetes was an actor as well and over the years continued to act to finance his own films. Like Welles he tended to work with people who were his friends - Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassell, his wife Gena Rowlands and others. Cassavetes was famously loyal to these friends and if John was working there was a good chance that he'd rope in a few buddies, even on other peoples films. When Cassavetes got to star in the excellent TV series JOHNNY STACCATO his SHADOWS cast all got guest spots - Lelia, Ben Carruthers, Tom Reese. When John was cast as one of THE DIRTY DOZEN he suggested Ben Carruthers for a role.

Sadly, today SHADOWS is a shadow of itself. It almost became a lost film. This restoration is made up of "selected sequences" and instead of the original 89 minutes we have a mere 70 odd minutes. Whether the rest of the film can ever be restored from the extremely bad condition original negative is doubtful. SHADOWS is not the greatest film ever made, it is sometimes crudely amatuerish but it is, I feel, an enormously important film. It's influence on later directors is obvious from the opening shots (Scorcese particularly - see WHOSE THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, MEAN STREETS and even GOODFELLAS). The film was improvised and it is fascinating to see how the actors cope with this - some like Lelia and Hugh Hurd seem perfectly comfortable while others like Anthony Ray are obviously less so. But this all adds to the extraordinary feel of realism. Lelia Goldoni gives a brilliant performance as the black girl who can pass for white and Hugh Hurd is totally convincing as her older brother, a crooner whose career is on the skids. Ben Carruthers as the younger brother is all anger and James Dean moodiness in a performance that is rather too mannered but quite captivating at the same time.

SHADOWS is part racial drama (Goldoni is seduced by asshole Antony Ray who is shocked to discover her racial background) and it is part I VITTELONI as Carruthers and his two buddies hang out, aimlessly, on the mean streets of New York.

I'm more an admirer of Cassavettes than a real fan. My problem with his films such as FACES and HUSBANDS is that I can't stand Ben Gazzara and when Cassavetes was letting his actors improvise scenes often go on far to long. His mainstream films are all worth a look and he was, perhaps, for me, at his best when combining the two styles in films like GLORIA. He was a true maverick as a director and often a fascinating actor. America should treasure his memory..

Trvia : Near the start of the film Carruthers goes to see his brother in a rehearsal room. As he enters a guy in dark glasses bounces past the camera in time with a practising chorus line - it's Bobby Darin who would later star in Cassavettes TOO LATE BLUES. Rating ****

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