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Film / Shadows

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Shadows is a 1959 film by John Cassavetes.

It revolves around a tight circle of friends and acquaintances in the New York City jazz scene, and specifically around three siblings. Ben is a light-skinned black trumpet player who spends not enough time working as a trumpeter and too much time cruising around Manhattan with his white buddies looking for girls. His similarly light-skinned sister Lelia (played by Lelia Goldoni, who was actually Sicilian) meets Tony, a white hipster, at a party. They fall in love. The third sibling, significantly more darker-skinned Hugh, is trying to make it as a jazz singer, but is struggling to get work outside of sleazy low-rent nightclubs. The three stories of the three siblings sometimes proceed separately, and sometimes intersect, playing out against the background of hip New York beatniks.


Shadows was a no-budget production filmed by Cassavetes, at that time an acting coach and television actor, without permits on a 16mm borrowed camera. It launched Cassavetes' career as an acclaimed director of art-house cinema, and has since come to be regarded as a landmark of American independent film. Also of notice is this being his fellow collaborator Seymour Cassel's debut.


  • Beatnik: Pretty much everybody, as the film is filled with writers and artists and musicians in hipster Manhattan.
  • Be Yourself: After her heartbreak with Tony, Lelia adopts a brassy, hard-shell attitude with Davey, making him wait two hours to take her out, insulting him, and also acting sexually aggressive. When Davey tells her to knock it off, saying simply that "It's you I like," she starts to cry and then embraces him as they dance.
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  • Big Brother Instinct: Tony reacts to meeting Lelia's brothers and finding out that she's black by blanching and making up a transparently phony excuse to leave, humiliating Lelia. When he seems to think better of it, a pissed-off Hugh chucks him out of the apartment.
  • Bookends: Starts with Ben, Tom, and Dennis knocking around looking for girls, trying to pick women up in a bar. Ends with the three of them knocking around looking for girls and trying to pick up women in a bar, except that they piss off the guys the women are already with, and get into a fistfight. Which they lose decisively.
  • Brief Accent Imitation: Tom briefly busts out a bad Clark Gable impersonation.
  • The Cameo: Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes' wife who would be the star of most of his later films, appears here only as a party guest.
  • Creator Cameo: John Cassavetes is the man who intervenes and saves Lelia from being harrassed or maybe assaulted by another man on the street.
  • Cute, but Cacophonic: For a given value of "cute"—but the chorus girls that Hugh has to introduce are attractive, but absolutely godawful singers. Part of Hugh's discontent stems from having to share the stage with such a terrible act.
  • The Last DJ: Hugh's main problem is that despite not being all that successful he regards himself as a great artist and above things like introducing chorus girls. His haughty attitude actually costs him work. After his manager Rupert blows his top in frustration, an apologetic Hugh says he'll do better.
  • Lens Flare: From the single light in the alley as Ben, Tom, and Dennis struggle to get up after getting their asses kicked in a fight.
  • No Guy Wants to Be Chased: Lelia's assertive, sexually adventurous persona that she adopts with Davey leads him to tell her that "Where I come from, the men do the asking. The girls just go 'yes' or 'no'."
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Ends with Ben telling his buddies, after they all got creamed in a fistfight, that he is tired of their aimless existence and wants to be more serious. He then trundles off down the sidewalk alone.
  • Pop-Star Composer: Jazz legend Charles Mingus composed the soundtrack.
  • P.O.V. Cam: From Tom's perspective as another man's fist is repeatedly sailing into his face.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: David the would-be intellectual's urge to the others to get out of their rut and improve themselves leads to the gang going to an art museum. Dennis has an appreciation for the outdoor sculptures while Tony The Cynic thinks that art is bogus.
  • Sleeping Single: Averted in a scene where not only are Tony and Lelia in bed together, but they're talking about the sex they just had, with Lelia having lost her virginity and not finding it pleasurable. This scene was typical of how movies outside of the dying studio system were casting off the censorship of The Hays Code.
  • Slice of Life: The relationships between various young arty New York types.