Tuesday, April 05, 2016
The Films of 1994: The Shadow
In terms of comic-book or superhero films, there’s a long-standing rule that Hollywood producers have forgotten on multiple occasions.
Period genre films fail at the box office.
Indeed, Hollywood history is littered with the corpses of period superhero or comic-book movies with titles such as Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975), Dick Tracy (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1998), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and John Carter (2012).
All these films either adapt older properties that are no longer popular enough to generate popular success, or are new properties that serve as homages (like Raiders of the Lost Ark …) to the decade of the 1930s.
Either way, these films don't meet with widespread audience approbation.
Because these films all failed, however, that does not necessarily mean that they are artistic failures.
Indeed, I count The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and John Carter as remarkable successes in terms of universe-building, and in the successful re-capturing an earlier era in entertainment.
I’m conflicted on Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. It’s a beautifully-made film, but largely an empty one, at least in terms of human interest.
A reader this week asked me about The Shadow, the 1994 Russell Mulcahy adaptation of the Walter B. Gibson character created in 1931, and it occupies a slot close to Dick Tracy in terms of my admiration assessment.
There are several powerful and successful elements at work in the film, and the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek tone makes it less dire (and less difficult to sit through...) than Beatty’s 1990 comic-book film.
Some critics of the day saw these virtues and made note of them. Jeff Laffel at Films in Review observed, for instance, that The Shadow was a “lot less pretentious” than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and a “whole lot of fun.”
In Cinefantastique, James Faller felt that the movie had “much to recommend it,” but that there was “never much sense of urgency or identification with the title character.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, The New York Post’s Michael Medved called The Shadow “the most embarrassing bit studio bomb of the summer.”
I don’t find the movie embarrassing in the slightest.
On the contrary, I think The Shadow is a fun if overlong movie, buttressed by Alec Baldwin’s game performance. I do agree with Faller that, by film’s end, the film feels more like a breezy, occasionally diverting effort than a compelling, necessary movie.
“The clouded mind sees nothing.”
In the early twentieth century, not long after the First World War -- in far off Tibet -- American ex-patriot Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) has become a ruthless warlord who terrorizes the locals.
One day, he is abducted from his HQ and brought before a Tulpa, a Tibetan instructor who teaches him how to ‘cloud’ the minds of enemies. He will pay for his crimes by fighting other criminals.
Years later, Lamont lives in New York and operates as ‘The Shadow,’ a vigilante who strikes fear into the heart of Manhattan’s gangsters. The Shadow also controls, from his sanctum, a network of associates/agents who owe him favors since he saved their lives.
As Lamont falls in love with Margo Lane (Penelope Anne Miller), the telepathic daughter of a scientist (Ian McKellen), a new threat rises.
The evil Shiwan Khan (John Lone) arrives in NYC to take over the world. He wields a deadly weapon, thanks to Dr. Lane; a Beryllium sphere, or atom bomb!
“You know what evil lurks in the heart of men.”
One quality that makes The Shadow a lot of fun is its bubbly, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. The film doesn't take itself too seriously, and that makes the re-assertion of dark superhero tropes bearable at times.
Also, Alec Baldwin -- who would have been the ultimate Batman in the eighties and nineties -- is perfect as the urbane, and faintly sinister Lamont Cranston.
Baldwin plays a man whom the audience can believe truly boasts a seething dark side. Not only is he saturnine in appearance, with piercing eyes, but he possesses a gravelly, authoritarian voice. In 1994, Baldwin was the perfect choice for The Shadow, especially given the character’s roots in radio (a voice-driven art form). He looks right, and he sounds right too.
The Shadow’s opening scene set in Tibet also seems, in some crucial way, to forecast one of the crucial (and best) sequences in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005). There, as you may recall, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale traveled to Ladakhi, a location inhabited by people of Tibetan descent.
There, he trained to become a great warrior (and consequently a superhero), and master his fear. That’s pretty much what happens in the prologue of The Shadow, with the path of Lamont’s life altered forever by is training at the hands of the Tulpa.
In some ways, this period of Far Eastern training works better, at least in terms of character consistency, in The Shadow.
Batman may be “the dark knight,” based on his childhood traumas, but Lamont is recruited to his superhero calling because, literally, of the darkness coruscating inside him.
He is picked for training because he carries some essential understanding -- based on his history as the “Butcher of Lhasa” -- of his own psyche. He knows what evil lurks in the heart of men as The Shadow, because that evil lurks within him. But Cranston's training has helped him master it.
At least most of the time.
If The Shadow’s prologue forecasts Batman Begins, then it is fair to state the opposite case too.
The Shadow also feels very much like a child of Tim Burton’s Batman. The first scene after the Tibetan prologue in The Shadow, for example, imitates the opening scene of Batman to an uncomfortable degree. Just as the mysterious Batman terrorized street level criminals in Gotham City in that film, The Shadow here confronts a number of thugs on the Brooklyn Bridge.
It is fair, to state, of course, that all superhero films feature scenes of heroes in criminals in conflict.
But just consider the underlying feeling or details at work in both sequences.
Specifically, the Shadow and Batman are both such terrifying presences that leave their respective criminals shaking and quaking in horror at their existence.
In both cases, the hero has become a near-mythical or superhero monster, not merely a superhero. There is a connection, in both cases, with darkness, monstrosity, and villainy. The Batman and The Shadow are both icons of fright, in these productions, at least before the audience gets to know them. They strike fear into the heart of men.
Superman doesn't do that. And neither did Adam West's Batman. Post-Dark Knight/Frank Miller, superheroes at the cinema had to be thee brooding, creatures of the night, stalking their prey under moonlight.
Also to the downside, the love affair in The Shadow between Margo Lane and Lamont Cranston feels very de rigueur, much like the unholy combination of the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, and the Batman/Vicky Vale relationship.
Like the former, the love interest is named “Lane” and represents a “threat” to the hero because of some experience or knowledge she brings to the table, either as a hardcore investigative reporter or a psychic,
And like Vicky, Margo “gets inside,” finding access to the hero’s dark, closed off world.
I don’t believe that The Shadow is as visually compelling or inventive as Dick Tracy is. That film’s overwhelming and distinctive color scheme -- as well as its fidelity to keeping action sequences confined to individual “frames”-- resulted in a singular entertainment. Yet The Shadow does a remarkably effective and impressive job creating 1930s New York City, and locations such as The Cobalt Club, The Empire State Building, the Monolith Hotel, and the aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge.
I should also note the film’s “prophetic” touches. There are some fun moments in The Shadow that require one to understand the history of America since the 1930s. For example, Khan quips at one point about creating a “New World Order,” and that was a critical comment of the first President Bush’s era in American politics.
By bringing in the future, through lines of dialogue such as this, The Shadow proves in fact, that it is not about a sinister and complex world, but an innocent one. The appeal is thus nostalgic.
Today, I'm not sure that's a quality the the film should have aimed for.
And even though The Shadow is actually one of the key influences behind the Batman mythos, the long-lived hero comes off in this film like a knock-off of such modern heroes as Batman, or even Darkman.
Furthermore, the film's supporting characters -- Roy Tam, Margo Lane, Moe Shrevnitz -- are unfamiliar to most audiences. Sure, they are faithful to The Shadow’s history, but there’s the feeling this feeling about the film that it is about ten-to-twenty years too late to please those who grew up with the Gibson character.
A sequel to The Shadow might have had the opportunity to build on the good things presented in this film (especially the Baldwin performance), but audiences never got the chance for a return engagement. Instead, this film simultaneously seemed too new and too much the same not to ‘cloud’ the minds of its confused audience.
As I’ve noted, I like The Shadow. I think it’s a notch or two better than Beatty’s Dick Tracy, at least as pure, human entertainment.
But I also think The Shadow proves the point that period superhero movies represent a tricky bet at the box office.
When we look to our silver screen superheroes, we don't want the adventures of yesteryear. Instead, we want cutting edge technology and characters, apparently.
Too late, The Shadow knows this.