I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Holding a Crazy Mirror Up to Nature: John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959)

by Anthony Galli
Nov. 11, 2013

You know it’s going to be a swingin’ time when a guy crashes your party wearing shades and carrying bongos. But, wait a minute! Why has he shoved himself into a corner of the room with his sunglasses off and looking like he wants to disappear? Jeez, you kooky kids and your unpredictable emotions!

Anyone acquainted with John Cassavetes’ films comes to them knowing what to expect, which isn’t to suggest that his films are in any way predictable. Unpredictability is, in fact, the guiding force of the Cassavetes filmography, and the template was set with his 1959 directorial debut Shadows.

Cassavetes was already an accomplished actor by the time he started filming Shadows in February, 1957. He had graduated from New York City’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, spent time in the theater, and had amassed an impressive CV of television and film work. Dissatisfied with the restrictions and conformity of the Hollywood studio system, and that his creative ideas were not given an opportunity to flourish under the indifference of the Hollywood power elite, Cassavetes hit upon the idea of holding improvisation classes in New York City. From the workshops of his 1956 improv classes, the seeds for Shadows were sown.

And, things will start to get interesting right about now.

As Jimmy Stewart is advised in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Much the same can be said for the life and career of John Cassavetes, a man of seemingly incompatible contradictions whose legend is largely based on the anecdotal exaggerations of the press. Like any great story, much of what has been written about Cassavetes contains glimmers of truth. But he was also a masterful storyteller himself who, when encouraged, could spin as long as there was yarn.

For example, did Cassavetes really have a fistfight with producer Stanley Kramer over the editing of A Child is Waiting? Did Cassavetes really chain himself to a radiator in the 1950’s until he was given a role in a television drama? Did a New York City cop really shoot his gun over the heads of the crew while they were on the streets illegally filming Shadows? All of these stories have made their way into press accounts of Cassavetes’ career for decades, and, well…who knows?

At the end of Shadows, there is a placard that announces, “The film you have just seen was an improvisation.” Well…mostly. As Cassavetes explained much later, after garnering positive press for his improvisational vérité achievement, “The emotion was improvisation. The lines were scripted. The attitudes were improvised.” Shadows was initially conceived through his improvisational workshops, and the first version of the film that debuted in 1958 was much more spontaneous than the re-filmed and re-cut, scripted, version released in 1959.

Cassavetes was known to polish his scripts throughout the production of a film, but he always worked with a script, and was always a prolific scriptwriter, with many left unpublished at the time of his death. Despite his meticulous attention to craft, there has always been the misperception that Cassavetes films are all improvised. No. Just incredible actors abandoning pretense and responding to the volatility and instability of life as any real person would do.

It also seemed that if life became too predictable or ordinary for Cassavetes, he would find a way to introduce chance elements into the mix. For example, he was known to “accidentally” walk into his cinematographers during a shot to create an unexpected camera movement and to keep things from being too smooth.

Instead of coasting through a successful life of conventional Hollywood meaninglessness on the strength of his acting chops and good looks, Cassavetes followed his muse to independently produce, write, direct, and struggle through such brave and pained classics as A Woman Under the Influence and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

With his many years of experience in front of the camera, Cassavetes certainly knew the mechanics and techniques of commercial filmmaking. He also knew that audience expectations and audience disapproval could create or destroy a film. Yet, he refused to acknowledge any of the limitations imposed upon his creative spirit by institutional dogma. If he had wanted, Cassavetes could have swindled Hollywood studios out of millions of dollars to produce his intimate character studies. All he had to do was conform to Hollywood’s rules; you know…shorter takes, faster cuts, punchier rhythms, less internal conflict and more external action.

Cassavetes actually directed a couple of “conventional” films under the auspices of Hollywood’s studio system; the jazz meditation on selling out to commercial interests of Too Late Blues (1961), and the fearless take on coping with mentally challenged children A Child is Waiting (1963). Each film is remarkable in its own way, such as in the studied cool of actual hepcats Slim Gaillard, Shelley Manne, and Bobby Darin in Too Late Blues, or the heartbreaking performance from Judy Garland in A Child is Waiting. Perhaps there was something about identifying with wayward musician types which allowed Cassavetes to coax such believable portrayals from them.

However, the director himself would disavow these films after studio interference compromised his artistic vision. For example, despite producing Too Late Blues himself for Paramount Pictures, Cassavetes was not allowed his original casting choices of Montgomery Clift and Gena Rowlands, but was required, instead, to use Bobby Darin and novice Stella Stevens. Edits were also demanded by the studio after the film was cut and completed. Similarly, Stanley Kramer, producer of A Child is Waiting, actually re-cut the film himself after Cassavetes submitted his final print to the studio, provoking an alleged fistfight between the two men (see above).

Hence, the formation of Cassavetes’ own production and distribution company, Faces International, to ensure that he would never have to cede creative control to corporate dictates again. Cassavetes was also unconcerned with whatever scorn or indifference critics and the public would lash at his art. “I don’t give a fuck what anybody says,” the director famously told an interviewer in 1984. “If you don’t have time to see it, don’t. If you don’t like it, don’t. If it doesn’t give you an answer, fuck you. I didn’t make it for you anyway.”

That is the true voice of independent cinema, and something within a Cassavetes film lets us know that he means it.


Although there is always a sense of unbridled and willful audacity in Cassavetes’ work, there is also the inescapable need to communicate. Characters in Cassavetes films are often tangled up emotionally and unable to clearly articulate what is on their minds, or what is in their hearts. They seem to operate servicably on a surface level-drinking, laughing, fooling around-but when life begins to get real, and the little tricks up their sleeves no longer make their problems disappear, we can see the entire house of cards start to crumble. They are left to choose on their own whether to isolate themselves further from society, or embrace the few who are holding out their hands for them.

Herein lies another of the great Cassavetes contradictions. He is adamant about maintaining steadfast individuality at any cost, but insists that only the society of a family can offer salvation. Cassavetes himself was an avowed family man, and his entire directorial career saw him work with many of the same people on every film he made. Perhaps, Cassavetes seems to suggest, it is within family, extended or otherwise, where one can safely be who one dares without judgment or prejudice. In Shadows, this is never more embodied than in the complicated relationship between love interest Leila, her brother Hughie, and loverboy Tony.

Shadows raised the curtain on Cassavetes’ subsequent body of work, foreshadowing key elements that would find their way into every one of his films. In Shadows one will find the damaged little boys who never grow up to be fully functioning adults, and who exaggerate their personas in an effort to hide their emotional inadequacies. Females in Cassavetes’ films, here especially represented by Leila, rely on the strengths of their identity to weather the storm of abuse and confrontation men heap on them in acts of egotism and confusion. There is defiance against authority figures who attempt to crush a person’s spirit and steal his soul, and there is the eternal debate over which is more legitimate, the intellect or the physical; academia or real life.

Cassavetes seems to make his actors palpably uncomfortable by forcing them to engage with desire and intention in ways that question the very core of their being. This unease is then further transmitted to the audience. Cassavetes never allows his actors to perform; they are required to be. And, one never leaves a Cassavetes film in a state of indifference. You could love it or hate it, but you will generally leave with more questions then you have answers, and probably just as confused as those people on the screen. Cassavetes would never have had it any other way.

“Do you want me to be corny and say it’s taught me a lesson?” Benny asks toward the end of the film. Well, we all know where Cassavetes is at with lessons.

Shadows features a semi-improvised free jazz score split between Charles Mingus and his sax player at the time Shafi Hadi, cameos from future Cassavetes regulars Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel, as well as by Bobby Darin and Cassavetes himself, and the neon splendor of New York City in the 1950’s.

Thefilm had been ignored for years, and prints of it lay in ruins, with dirty and damaged secondhand prints making the rounds until it was chosen for preservation and restoration in 1993 by the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry.

In 1997, Cassavetes’ son Nick (The Notebook) directed an unproduced script of his father’s, She's So Lovely, with Sean Penn and Robin Wright, while Sidney Lumet re-made Cassavetes’ 1980 gangster comedy Gloria with Sharon Stone in 1999. In 2010, Argentinian filmmaker Santiago Giralt directed Antes del Estreno, a Spanish-language adaptation of Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night. In 2003, an image of John Cassavetes directing Husbands was chosen for the United States Postal Service’s “American Filmmaking” postage stamp collection.

Hey, Cassavetes was so cool that he filmed six nights of Blondie shows at the Whisky a Go Go in 1977 for a documentary film by his frequent collaborator and photography legend Sam Shaw.

Essentially, the method and madness of Cassavetes and his work are being respected, studied, and understood now in ways that they never were before his death at the age of 59 in 1989.

John Cassavetes’ Shadows set the template for an astonishing, if tragically abbreviated, body of work that helped define independent cinema, and which still resonates today. Even in 1959, Cassavetes seemed to know that people wouldn’t understand his work in the future. Perhaps this is why he had his loner Benny philosophize that, “It’s not a question of understanding it, man. If you feel it, you feel it!”

Or, in order for Cassavetes to emotionally protect himself from “the whips and scorns of time,” he has Leila conclude that, “The point is, if you are yourself, you won’t be hurt.”

To thine own self be true, indeed.

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.