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 [1982]…) 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.


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head with regard to the ironic twist of fate that dooms these period pieces. The comic book writers brazenly swiped from the pulps and comics strips, mainly because they were young, inexperienced writers who were just making a buck and didn't think their work would last beyond the next issue. The comic book characters endured while the radio, pulp, and comic strip characters that inspired them did not. By the time The Shadow came out, there was definitely a feeling of "been there, done that" about it.

    I recently read that Shane Black wants to do a Doc Savage movie with Dwayne Johnson. I think it's a step in the right direction to cast someone who looks more like the Doc on the Bama paperback covers rather than the WASP-y figure on the pulp covers (like Ron Ely). I just hope he doesn't set the stories in the 1930s. Doc Savage was meant to be a man of the times, using the latest technology, or even futuristic technology. A modern day, high tech Doc might stand a better chance at the box office than yet another 30s rendition whom young viewers will perceive as a cross between Superman and Indiana Jones.

  2. John excellent review. I liked THE SHADOW film and I think it deserves another reboot as so many other super hero characters have gotten. The right script, director and casting I think it could become a franchise.


  3. When it first came out, I only found one person who really disliked The Shadow. "Did you miss the first of it?" "We walked in about five minutes late."

    As much as I dislike the current round of Marvel and DC movies seeming to explain the whole world each movie, it has a positive feature: you connect with the character. The Shadow ran through the introduction of Cranston too fast, and if you weren't already a Shadow fan, you weren't going to connect with him in the movie either. Also, Khan was too fast: he was too deeply connected to the city (especially making a whole city forget a motel) for just being there (apparently) a few weeks. Even a "I have had to hide myself from you for months" line would have helped there.

    I would love to see a Netflix or Amazon miniseries with a retelling of the same story. Amazon especially can deal with a period piece (The Man in the High Castle), and a 8 or 10 show season would let us work a Cranston arc where we cared that he had reformed, and allow Khan to both be comedically funny AND scary.

    (And the first person who posts "Johnathon Winters was wasted" should be sent to the cornfield. His performance IMHO saved the movie. He packed a LOT of comic relief into a very dense serious character.)

  4. John,

    Recently I was scouring the Book Off stores here in Los Angeles, looking for dvd's of both "The Phantom" and "The Shadow." Although I didn't find them, I was reminded by your review of my mixed feelings towards both, but my enjoyment of them nonetheless.

    Two things I remembered from co-workers who had also seen "The Shadow": One felt that the movie missed the point of Lamont Cranston's powers entirely. He felt that it was never stated but strongly implied that Cranston had learned Ninjitsu; that he was actually a ninja who had the ability to hide in the shadows and appear as if from nowhere. He felt that the movie treated the powers like magic, and were not respectful of the character's roots.

    The other had us both laughing due to the fact that when Cranston becomes The Shadow, he undergoes a transformation (using the morphing technology of the time) which is supposed to make him look more like the character as depicted on pulp magazine covers of the 30's. Ralph, who is Jewish, asked why Cranston turns into an old Jewish guy to fight crime. "They shouldn't call him The Shadow," he said. "They should call him The Shyster!"

    You probably had to be there.


  5. "The Shadow" has some really good moments and some fun sequences in it, but yeah it runs a bit too long and feels a bit familiar. It was certainly influenced by Burton's "Batman". But I think it is fair to say that the character in the radio dramas was very similar to Batman as well. His sinister voice would often drive the criminals into bouts of fear. A natural state when you have Orsen Wells providing the voice.

    In the end "The Shadow" is a movie I want to like more than I do. I will say that the score by Jerry Goldsmith is a blast. He takes the dark hero sound that Elfman created for "Batman" and added his own style to it. I really love that percussion motif for Khan and the Shadow's theme gets some awesome counterpoint going in the final battles. One of Goldsmith's most vibrant and exciting scores of the 1990s.