Shadows (John Cassavetes, 1959) is full of shadows, but the murkiest shadow cast is that of race. Famously, its precursor was an improvisation session at the theatre workshop John Cassavetes ran in the mid-1950s with Burt Lane, which manifests in the film as the sequence in which a white seducer, Tony (Anthony Ray), accompanies his new lover, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), to her apartment – only to be horrified to discover, upon meeting one of her brothers, that, in spite of her light skin, she is black 1.

This sequence is at the literal and metaphorical epicentre of the film, sending ripples and shockwaves backwards and forwards. The reason that this scene is still shocking is that it drags to the surface what has already been latent in Shadows – showing that, even though race may not register verbally in the film before the ‘revelation’ scene, it has informed every frame that precedes it.

Racism is experienced differently by each of the three siblings. Take Benny (Ben Carruthers), reportedly the protagonist of the vexed, more ‘New York underground’ version of the film that was rejected by its first audiences, and which is still withheld from distribution by the Cassavetes estate 2. Even in the second, ‘official’ version – in which half an hour of original, apparently improvised footage was overlaid with nearly an hour of heavily scripted reshoots, and in which the centre of narrative gravity shifts from Benny to his sister Lelia – it is Benny who bookends the film with images of his abjection and alienation.

The film begins at a raucous rock’n’roll gig, with Benny almost apologetically skulking into the crowded frame and trying to push his way to the other side of the room. In this painful sequence – easily missed as the opening credits scroll – Benny evinces both a desperate desire to belong and a heartbreaking gesture of self-abnegation as he attempts to hide his body, make it disappear. He succeeds in this aim in the closing sequence, in which he abandons his friends and vanishes into the dark, lonely and anonymous streets. This disappearance follows a street fight in which Benny is so badly beaten that he huddles and cries like a mewling child, as if trying to deny the adulthood that is so problematic for him. One of his assailants punches straight into the camera, in what may be a nod to The Great Train Robbery (Edwin S. Porter, 1903), another epochal ‘year zero’ in the history of American film and a playful assault on audience preconceptions and sensibilities; but may also be a reflection of Benny’s unarticulated/inchoate desire for effacement and annihilation.

The earlier sequence was placed much later in the first version, appropriately following the explosive scene in which Benny storms out of a party hosted by his older brother Hugh (Hugh Hurd). The party sequence gives the lie to the enduring categorisation of Cassavetes as a ‘realist’; it is pure expressionism. The critical consensus is that Benny’s angst originates in his ambivalent relationship with his darker-skinned brother, in a country where such skin is devalued 3. As Benny becomes progressively alienated from his surroundings and the guests, the jazz soundtrack increases in volume and takes on accelerated, hysterical ‘jungle’ rhythms, accompanying a Soviet-style montage that isolates black faces from the multiracial gathering. This audiovisual pressure can only find an outlet in violence, culminating in Benny striking a female guest who encourages him to ‘join in’.

Benny is not the only sibling to suffer subliminally from racism. Hugh functions as paterfamilias and breadwinner, and appears to be the most emotionally stable of the three, happy with his white lover, confident in his artistic gift and content in a tetchy, fraught but mutually dependent ‘marriage’ with his manager; his only problems appear to be professional. But those problems directly address the historical marginalisation of black musicians in 1950s America, as Hugh acknowledges with his stated ambition of leaving for France or Africa. It is notable that, unlike his flânant brother and sister, Hugh is never seen outdoors – he is confined to his apartment, rehearsal rooms, cramped nightclubs with hostile (white) audiences and seemingly deserted bus and train stations; this confinement is a visual and formal emblem of his segregation.

Lelia is in a double bind, being both a woman and African-American (Cassavetes has been criticised for casting a white actress in the role). She is constantly pressured by literally dazzling images of ‘high’ and ‘low’ images of white female perfection – cinema lobby cards featuring Brigitte Bardot and Audrey Totter, and posters of Libby Holman; Playboy magazines and girlie shows; paintings by Degas, Renoir and Rouault; books and street graffiti – while also vulnerable to objectification by strange men who feel entitled to hit on her. This is before she even meets Tony, about whom she will have subconscious suspicions – her later post-coital distress may be a generalised unhappiness, but her reluctance to bring him to her home seems to be an intuition of his eventual rejection.

All this pain, humiliation, suffering. As so often happens in situations where power and status are precarious, those who are humiliated and marginalised regroup to humiliate and marginalise others. Hugh and Benny create a brief space for spiritual recuperation by ganging up on Lelia’s new date, the ‘stodgy’ 4 male chauvinist Davey (Davey Jones). It is significant that he is introduced in this sequence with the same shot of a thumb loudly ringing the doorbell as that of Hugh’s when he is about to unwittingly ‘expose’ Lelia to Tony. The siblings are never more playful, engaging or intimate than in this sequence, which is partly a typical family ‘roasting’ of a new boyfriend, but – as so often in Cassavetes’ work – also about so much more than what is shown on the surface. Shadows may be all ‘about’ race and racism, but its originality lies in the unresolved complexity with which Cassavetes treats those perennial subjects.

Shadows (1959 USA 87 mins)

Prod co: Lion International Prod: Maurice McEndree Dir: John Cassavetes Scr: John Cassavetes, Robert Alan Aurthur Phot: Erich Kollmar Ed: John Cassavetes, Maurice McEndree Prod Des: Randy Liles & Bob Reeh

Cast: Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd



  1. Ray Carney, Shadows, (London, British Film Institute, 2001).
  2. David Sterritt, ‘John Cassavetes: A Filmmaker Under the Influence’, Cinéaste 30 (Fall 2005), pp. 32–5.
  3. See for example, Albert Johnson, ‘Review: Shadows’, Film Quarterly 13 (Spring 1960), p. 34; Clara Hoover, ‘An Interview with Hugh Hurd’, Film Comment 1 (no. 4, 1963), pp. 25-26; Cassavetes quoted in Carney, 2001, p.  24.
  4. Johnson, p. 34.

About The Author

Darragh O’Donoghue is an archivist at Tate Britain, and is completing a PhD with the Department of Art, University of Reading.