Shadows: The Improvisation of Life

by Erix Antoine


The end credits of John Cassavetes’ film Shadows say: “This film was an improvisation.”

The two most important elements about that statement, in retrospect, are first that it is untrue and – perhaps more tellingly – it comes off ever so slightly as a justification. Oh, make no mistake, Cassavetes intends that title card to stand as a tribute to the work done by the film’s actors; and in some ways it works as such. But it also seems to be his way of saying: “We apologize for the chaotic mess you have just seen, and this is why it was so chaotic.”

So, let’s go back to that term: improvisation.

What does it really mean?

Certainly, one would think, that in any true work of art there can never be real improvisation. Everything is ultimately the result of some form of planning. This is ever more true in the art of cinema and narrative storytelling. You don’t get that camera rolling until you’ve decided on a story to tell. So, no story can ever truly be “improvised”, because it is not spontaneously created.

Life, however, is not like that.

Life is spontaneous, even as people go about any kind of daily routine, their “story” happens around them. So the only true improvisation is arguably life itself. In “justifying” the rawness of Shadows to an audience, Cassavetes is also very clearly stating that he has just shown them a slice of life – in the truest sense of that term.

It might not have been his intention at the outset; and there is some literal truth in calling the film an “improvisation”.

Shadows began as a series of acting exercises run by Cassavetes at his New York workshop. Disillusioned by the traditional Hollywood machine, he had become intrigued by the idea of making “a movie about people.” He guided his group of amateur actors into a state of inhabiting roles not too far removed from who they actually were, improvising various interactions as their characters or, more succinctly put, as themselves.

Hugh Hurd, Lelia Goldoni and Ben Carruthers. Being "themselves."

Hugh Hurd, Lelia Goldoni and Ben Carruthers. Being “themselves.”

So the “story about people” was an organic result of these improvisations. As the actors began to inhabit their roles, they discovered who they were and what stories they wanted to tell.

And in that same process, Cassavetes discovered first how to make films and then the sorts of films he wanted to make.

Shadows is rather striking in its sloppiness. Budget considerations demanded it be shot on 16mm black and white film. Because they couldn’t afford permits, much of the location shooting in New York City was done guerrilla style – running around the streets with a handheld camera, or setting up long shots through store windows located sometimes across the street from where the filmed event was taking place.

Sound was also an issue. Unable to afford the more high end sound recording equipment, Cassavetes and company simply used whatever rudimentary process was available to them at a given moment. The result was that several scenes were so inaudible, they had to be looped later. While looping scenes is certainly common practice in Hollywood and beyond, it is normally accomplished in a professional recording booth, using the latest dubbing techniques. It is not at all common to record the looped dialog in the living room of an apartment located underneath an active dance studio.

This is where the question of deliberate intent comes in. Had Cassavetes been afforded a higher budget and better resources, he would have most likely delivered a more “polished” film. But it is that very rawness which gives the film its urgency and a feeling of being almost a living organism rather than merely a film.

That living, breathing quality would become a staple of Cassavetes’ subsequent work as a filmmaker. But it’s important to consider that he may have stumbled into this aesthetic out of necessity rather than choice. It went on to define his entire career. Be that as it may, there is a freshness and a boldness to Shadows that makes it unique. In Cassavetes’ filmograhy, yes, but even more so for the time of its release as an independently-produced film. If Cassavetes is the father of American independent cinema, and I am one of the many who feel that he very much is, then we can say the entire independent film movement begins here.

Whether it’s literally the first American independent film or not, it’s safe to say that audiences had never been exposed to a film quite like Shadows when they sat down to view it in 1959. And here I am referring not only to its raw aesthetic, but also the frankness of its themes. Cassavetes uses the stark, rough photography to depict a series of snapshots, if you will, of New York night life and the hedonism that lies therein. But he also makes room to explore matters of sexuality, gender equality and – above all – racism.


Although Cassavetes himself has repeatedly insisted the movie has little to do with the actual problem of racism, the truth – if one actually watches the film – is that it has everything to do with it. It tells the stories of three African Americans as they make their way through Bohemian society in New York. Hugh is a black musician struggling to make a name for himself in the local jazz scene, while his loyal manager Rupert does everything he can to make that happen for his client. Even if it means getting him a gig introducing a line of chorus girls, only to have him booed off the stage.

The other two characters are Hugh’s light-skinned siblings. On one end of this spectrum is his kid sister Lelia. This is the storyline that most people remember when they look back on the film. First and foremost because of Lelia Goldoni’s very charismatic performance, and second because the deeply moving arc encapsulates the film’s themes of racial conflict and the search for identity.

Lelia is a magazine writer seeking recognition and acceptance as a valid, individual voice. During one of the many high society parties attended by her, she meets a well-to-do white man named Tony, who is unaware of her cultural background. Sure enough, they enter into a passionate affair until he shuns her after discovering she’s black.

The last member of this trinity is Lelia’s brother Ben. He’s another light-skinned black, the difference being that he consciously lives life passing for white with his greaser friends: alternating between unremarkable or just plain non-existent gigs as a trumpet player; and frequenting the seedier bars of the Upper West Side of New York, trying to pick up girls – all in a vain quest for some form of identity and a sense of belonging.

[NOTE: In order to find a real honesty in their characters, Cassavetes encouraged his actors to use their actual first names. So, Hugh is played by actor Hugh Hurd, Lelia by Lelia Goldoni, Ben by Ben Carruthers, and so on…]

That the film is book ended, in a way, with Ben is no coincidence.

Because Cassavetes’ other big theme is about identity. This is something he no doubt clearly identified in himself, being a struggling young actor. As we watch Ben go from one aimless party to another, it’s not hard to imagine a young twenty-something Cassavetes going through many of the same routines on his quest to find himself.

Cassavetes very adamantly stated that he saw Shadows as a story about “regular people,” and their race was irrelevant. It was a point of contention for him that most of the reviews and essays written about the film focused on the racial issue. He wanted to emphasize that the important element of the film was that aforementioned quest for identity and purpose; and everyone was talking about racial conflict.

It’s a fair point for Cassavetes to make, especially if he feels his central message is not being heard. But it’s also very naive of him to downplay the racial angle, or expect others to ignore it when it is so ingrained in every beat of the film. Furthermore, when you consider that a person’s race is inherently linked to their sense of identity, the film’s central message is not being missed at all.

Lelia and Tony

Lelia and Tony

Ultimately, the film serves to break barriers and shatter taboo ideas; doing so completely without romanticism. This has none of the pretentious pleasantries of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (i.e. it’s perfectly okay to date black people so long as they’re Sidney Poitier). Lelia’s romance is doomed because her suitor is a racist, plain and simple. No attempt is made to contextualize or gloss over this fact in any way. A scene towards the end, in which Tony apologizes to Ben for walking out on his sister, is not treated with the sort of revelatory emotion that a scene like that would normally have in a typical Hollywood “message movie.” We don’t see a villain repent and learn his lesson. We see a shallow man trying to ease his guilt with platitudes. Ben sees through that, as do we, and the scene is played for laughs.

That may be the other reason why Shadows is remembered as a movie about an interracial relationship. Because, of the three parallel stories, it seems to be the only one that achieves any kind of closure. But that is a misconception. Because the conflict between Lelia and Tony remains unresolved, and Tony is still a racist. He simply refuses to admit it, that’s all.

Moreover, if Lelia’s central conflict is one of identity and acceptance within the intellectual elite, the movie certainly does not end with her fulfilling this goal. It ends on a quiet dance between her and a new suitor, this one black, as she breaks down and accepts she has been hurt and needs consolation from someone within her circle.

The other stories come to similarly low-key ends. Hugh and Rupert have a cheerful conversation in which they ultimately come to terms with their mediocrity. Hugh knows what his standing in life is. He understands what his options are. He firmly trusts that his manager will always do the best he can for him. That has to be enough.

Across town, Ben has had one barroom brawl too many, and decides to leave his particular party early. There is an understanding, even as Cassavetes refuses to clearly state it, that Ben has come to recognize the aimlessness of his hedonism. His leaving the friends behind seems to signify that he’s off to search for other avenues as the Times Square night engulfs him.


There is some closure in all of this, I suppose. But it is not the sort of complete catharsis normally associated with melodramas such as this one; and it was a very good indication of what lay ahead for the films of John Cassavetes. You wouldn’t be approaching them looking for answers. He was going to be asking the questions and each audience member had to find the answer within themselves.