Film critic Leonard Maltin calls Cassavetes' second version of Shadows "a watershed in the birth of American independent cinema". The movie was shot with a 16 mm handheld camera on the streets of New York. Much of the dialogue was improvised, and the crew were class members or volunteers. The jazz-infused score underlines the movie's Beat Generation theme of alienation and raw emotion. The movie's plot features an interracial relationship, which was still a taboo subject in Eisenhower-era America.
In 1993, Shadows was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".