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John Cassavetes’ startling directorial debut changed American movies forever.

If American independent cinema could be said to have a birthday, Nov. 11 is as good a date to celebrate as any. On that night 50 years ago, John Cassavetes, an actor then best known for his TV roles, unveiled for a downtown New York audience his directing debut, Shadows. Cassavetes had financed the production with his paychecks from Hollywood and made the film with a cast and crew of novice actors from his drama workshop. The finished product betrayed their inexperience: mismatched cuts, shots out of focus, audio out of sync. But it was also unlike anything audiences had seen before: a raw, kinetic, jazz-scored dispatch from bohemian New York that was frank about sex, progressive on race, and intoxicated with youth. The film radiated a sense of urgency, even desperation—it felt like something Cassavetes just had to get out of his system.

Beyond any of its singular qualities—its searing immediacy, its disarming realness—Shadows’ very existence is its biggest legacy. Wearing its DIY ethos proudly, the movie hacked a path that artists suspicious of Hollywood (that is, if they could get in the door at all) would later follow. After its New York debut, the movie won acclaim on the international circuit, drawing crowds in London and Paris and winning a critics’ award at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. It was eventually released commercially in the United States in 1961, with the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther calling it “unfinished” but “fitfully dynamic, endowed with a raw but vibrant strength, conveying an illusion of being a record of real people, and it is incontestably sincere.”

Cassavetes’ movie not only anticipated Mean Streets, Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, and Slacker, among countless others—it helped will them into being. As Martin Scorsese noted, after Shadows, there were “no more excuses” for aspiring filmmakers: “If he could do it, so could we!”  And yet 50 years after its release, Shadows is a forgotten movie, revered by cultists, critics, and historians but neglected by a culture on which it has had a profound influence.

The movie immerses you in its world from the get-go. The opening credits scroll over a raucous rave-up in a cramped apartment, with revelers—white and black—boozing and singing along to an impromptu jam. Without a word of dialogue the demimonde is established—this is not Don Draper’s Manhattan. Shadows centers on three siblings: Benny (Ben Carruthers), a brooding beatnik and unemployed trumpet player; Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), the innocent little sister who puts up a worldly front; and Hughie (Hugh Hurd), the oldest and a struggling jazz musician. The three are African-American, but only Hughie looks it—both Benny and Lelia are light-skinned enough to pass for white.

Although it might eschew a conventional plot, Shadows is hardly uninterested in storytelling. Narrative springs organically from character and circumstance. When we first meet Hughie, he and his friend and manager, Rupert (Rupert Crosse), are negotiating a deal for his next gig, a demeaning spot opening for a tone-deaf chorus line:

Meanwhile, Lelia meets smooth-talking Tony (Tony Ray) at a party, leading to her first sexual encounter. Considering that this was the year of Pillow Talk and A Summer Place, their post-coitus exchange is startlingly frank:

The trauma of her first time notwithstanding, Lelia falls for Tony. But when Tony meets Hughie—and realizes that he is, in fact, dating a black girl—the shock is too much, and Tony flees in confusion.

Despite the intrusion of racism into the scenario, Shadows never belabors the political. More interested in capturing life as it’s lived than in delivering a message, the movie has a loose-limbed vitality. Long stretches are devoted to watching characters simply hang out and shoot the breeze. When Cassavetes and crew go out into the streets, the same spontaneity holds, with the guerrilla production offering a privileged glimpse of a living, breathing ‘50s Manhattan:

Cassavetes might have eschewed the mediating comfort of a plot for a closer look at the pedestrian, but his vision of life was far from mundane. His was a heightened reality populated by performers, both onstage and in their lives. Lelia, a self-proclaimed artist, can play flinty or flirtatious, depending on her mood and the man. Benny’s own facade of Beat sulking is both a celebration of the cool pose and a critique of bohemian nihilism. Although all three siblings are artists, only Hughie gets a chance to perform for a crowd, doing a number at a Philly nightclub in which he has to play emcee for a gaggle of floozies in order to land a badly needed paycheck—a metaphor for Cassavetes’ own unhappy relationship with Hollywood.

“The film you have just seen is an improvisation,” reads the closing title card. But was it really? As Cassavetes later admitted, much of the finished product was, in fact, scripted. An embellishment through it may be, the claim isn’t entirely outlandish. The script grew out of improvisations in Cassavetes’ workshops, with the Tony-Lelia subplot emerging as the key scenario from the exercises. Cassavetes, who had made an earlier version of the film that was received disastrously, decided that he had to write and shoot new material to give the movie some shape and coherence. As critic Gary Giddens notes in an essay in the Criterion Collection DVD, “the improvisational route led him to realize the limitations of improvisation.”

That earlier version has since been a source of controversy. Unveiled to a midnight crowd at New York’s Paris Theater in November 1958, the movie was received with what Cassavetes called “mostly hostile eyes.” A few championed it, however, with the legendary critic Jonas Mekas declaring it a masterpiece. When Cassavetes unveiled the new version a year later, Mekas was appalled. Writing in the Village Voice, he called the new Shadows “a bad commercial film with everything that I was praising completely destroyed.” Cassavetes fired back, replying that the second version was in “no way a concession and … a film far superior to the first.” A few years ago, the world actually got its chance to compare when the first version played at the Rotterdam Film Festival, thanks to Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney, who tracked down an original print. But Cassavetes’ widow, Gena Rowlands, has since threatened legal action to prevent the first version from being screened, contending that the Shadows we know is the only one that should ever be seen. (Carney details his side of the dispute on his Web site.)

Whether you’ve seen the first version or not, calling Shadows a “bad commercial film” is comically off base. Cassavetes held no truck with Hollywood convention. His movie is elliptical, uninhibited, even at times cruel. Cassavetes and his actors aren’t afraid to have their characters act in unlikable ways, as when the siblings torment a square suitor waiting on a primping Lelia. But that’s not to say that Cassavetes was hostile to the viewer—far from it. In fact, Cassavetes said the reason he tinkered with the original was because of that cool audience response to the first version. In other words, he listened to the test-screening crowd. Cassavetes would later call the first version “a totally intellectual movie and therefore less than human.” What he wanted more than anything was to connect with those people sitting in the dark.

Bearing scars from its painful birth, Shadows’ imperfections only add to its rebel appeal. Its ragged intensity all but burns a hole through Hollywood’s lacquered movie-palace screen. But as drastic a departure as it was from studio fare, it was hardly a lone pioneer. Released during the watershed year of 1959, Shadows was a harbinger of the decade to come in movies. Called by some film buffs the greatest movie year of all time, 1959 also saw the release of those twin trailblazers of the French New Wave, The 400 Blows and Breathless. Less polished and cerebral, Shadows’ claim to greatness lies in its emphasis on performance and process. (A decade and a half later, Shadows’ naturalism and the New Wave’s formal expressiveness would meet and marry in Scorsese’s Mean Streets.)

As much in the moment as it is of the moment, Cassavetes’ film certainly holds interest to contemporary eyes as a time capsule: of Beat culture, of ‘50s New York, of a restive art form on the brink of a revolution. But Shadows isn’t just a historical curio or academic footnote. The surprise is that it still surprises. Here’s a movie about, among other things, being young, being in love, and being black in America, and it never once feels didactic or strained. The emotions it captures remain true and poignant. Scaling down moviemaking to a skeleton crew and sheer conviction, Cassavetes captured a live current on film with Shadows. It still emits a charge after half a century, a movie insistently set in the present tense and yet somehow timeless.