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I’m going to ask you a question; I want you to picture a millionaire playboy, someone with rugged good looks, dark hair, dapper suits, boasting a different model girlfriend on his arm every night. Okay, got that? Good. Now, let’s add a little context – what does this millionaire playboy do with his time? Well, by day he is a wealthy socialite, but by night he leaves his hidden lair, dons a mask and stalks the streets of a teeming metropolitan city as a cape wearing crime fighter. Now tell me, who do you see? Batman? Of course, but on this occasion, you would be wrong as I was not describing the DC hero but the Shadow, a Detective Stories character who first appeared on radio in July of 1930 (and print in April 1931), almost 9 years before Batman made his bow in March of 1939.
The Shadow is my favourite comic book character and while not the first superhero, the Shadow was certainly a formative one responsible for many of the motifs popularised by later comic book heroes, Batman in particular. Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman with Bob Kane, cites the Shadow as one of his chief inspirations when it came to the look and feel of both Batman and Bruce Wayne, publicly acknowledging some years later that, “my first Batman script was a take-off on a Shadow story…Batman was originally written in the style of the pulps.”
Yet, the Shadow is not Batman, he is a far more interesting character. Based upon whether you followed the radio serials or the pulp novels, his backstory differs from medium to medium. He could be Kent Allard, a once daring WWI fighter pilot who disappeared after being shot down over the jungles of South America. Or he could be Lamont Cranston, a wealthy playboy from New York City who spends his time and fortune travelling Europe. Or John Haverson, a disgraced British lawyer looking to avenge his fall from grace and find the business partner that ruined him. Or a mysterious westerner known in Tibet as Ying Ko, a cruel and ruthless opium lord. Or, he could be all of them, each being part of the cypher that is the enigmatic Shadow.
At the height of his fame, the Shadow featured in two novels a month for the guts of 20 years, the vast majority of which were written by Walter B. Gibson (under the pen name of Maxwell Grant), a prolific pulp fiction novelist and magician. These Shadow novels were among the first of the “pulp” fiction kind, so called as the paper or pulp it was printed on was of a lower quality allowing the publishers to produce larger print runs at a lower price. Yet, the Shadow has not displayed the same permanence as Batman. By the mid 1950’s the pulp fiction novels, comics and radio drama’s featuring the character had all but dried up. There were exceptions, most notably the cheap B-movies, spoofs by Mad Magazine or the odd short run revivals over the decades that never gained any real traction. By the latter end of the 20th century, The Shadow’s position in popular culture had been well and truly usurped by Batman and Superman and any amount of Stan Lee creations. The once loved legacy of the Shadow drifted into obscurity and parody. Until the mid-1990’s that is. With a growing interest among the cinema going public (and film producers) for superheroes following the success of the Batman films, the Shadow was resurrected. Starring Alec Baldwin as the titular character, this new take on the father of crime fighters was released in 1994, 25 years ago.
“Who knows the evil that lurks in the hearts of men…the Shadow knows!”
Taking inspiration from both the pulp novels and radio serials, The Shadow addressed the alter-egos of Ying Ko and Lamont Cranston. In this version, the Shadow is Lamont Cranston, a distracted playboy who returns to New York City after several mysterious years spent in the Far East. During this time, Lamont succumbed to the darkness in his soul and shed his Cranston identity, becoming Ying Ko, a tyrant opium lord. Saved by The Tulku, a Tibetan Lama, Ying Ko is purged of his evil over the course of seven years and becomes Cranston once more, but there is a price to pay for his redemption. Cranston must return to his homeland, America, and fight against the evils in his native city of New York. As part of his training with The Tulku, Cranston learned how to “cloud men’s minds” and thus make himself invisible. The only thing he cannot conceal is his shadow. But in becoming the Shadow he taps into his dark half. This struggle between the good and the evil in his nature affects him physically, transforming the features of his face, so he wears a wide brimmed slouch hat and a red silk scarf to conceal his disfigurement. As a boy it was this physical transformation that grabbed my attention, this concept of a man struggling so drastically between the light and the darkness within him. Batman puts on his suit, but The Shadow physically changes to fight crime.
Directed by Australian filmmaker Russell Mulcahy, The Shadow was intended to kick start a franchise and to own the summer of 1994. Ultimately it failed to do so; The Shadow, an art deco, piece of pulp schmaltz bombed at box office, barely making enough to cover its production costs (which were at that time a not insignificant $40 million). It was another in a string of box office disappointments for Alec Baldwin, and for Russell Mulcahy it was a film his career never recovered from, the director lurching from straight-to-video features to episodes of television. But why? This is where I have to step back for a minute and view The Shadow coolly and without bias but before I do so I want to say that The Shadow is a guilty pleasure of mine and one I have revisited several times over the years on VHS and DVD. It is so much fun, a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, unlike the recent DC output, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Justice League in particular. The Shadow is undeniably hokey, but it’s an action/adventure story designed to entertain, and it does this admirably.
With that said, The Shadow is not without its flaws; being very much a film of its day, there was no Hollywood cookie-cutter secret formula to mass producing popular comic book films. The Shadow displayed so much promise but ultimately failed to strike a chord with audiences in 1994 as it wasn’t quite sure what it wanted to be, a dark comic book adventure or a light humorous action film. The marriage of both was never fully in balance and for every moment of dark brilliance (such as the bridge sequence towards the beginning) there were too many moments of ridiculous camp pantomime (such as Farley Claymore trying to ask Margo Lane out on a date). David Koepp’s screenplay never seems confident or comfortable with its subject matter, shifting uneasily and sometimes awkwardly between scenes and ideas. It also didn’t help that The Shadow opened within a few weeks of that year’s box office behemoths, The Lion King, Forrest Gump and True Lies.
Like most comic book films, the real clue about what to expect is in the title. The Shadow stands or falls under the strength of its lead actor and Alec Baldwin seems to revel in playing the Shadow. He inhabits the role, and that of his alter ego Lamont Cranston, with great ease (e.g. – the Brooks Brothers scene in the Sanctum), getting to utilise his distinctive voice and physical stature to great effect. Yet to audiences outside of America, the name The Shadow will raise more eyebrows than smiles. Who? Say the name Batman and you can instantly picture the character as we have a reservoir of innate knowledge and memory to draw on. This lack of familiarity with the Shadow/Lamont Cranston character let Mulcahy’s film down. 1994 was the first time audiences had seen the Shadow on film in 36 years. Yes, there had been a few short-lived comic book serials in the 80’s but nothing to build a franchise on; there was also no tv series to constantly re-run, unlike Batman. The Shadow was hardly ubiquitous and, as such, hamstrung before it had a chance to get going, which is a shame as The Shadow is a visually stunning film.
The production design team beautifully realise an era of New York City long since passed, a homage to that 1930’s epoch. Displaying all the technical brilliance that film enthusiasts love, such as stop motion animation, miniatures, matte backdrops, intricately constructed sets and ambitious camera work, The Shadow is a triumph of style and skill. The beautifully detailed, noir-ish cityscapes complete with spark-throwing elevated trains and gothic architecture creates an almost fantasy-like experience (not much unlike director Mulcahy’s 1986 film, Highlander), yet The Shadow’s shortcomings are exposed by its lack of identity.
This may be partially explained by Mulcahy and producer Martin Bregman’s difference of opinions on the look and feel of the film. In an interview with Blake J. Harris, Mulcahy said, “the producer…had a slightly different vision of the film than I did. I guess I wanted to make it a bit stranger. And I think he had a different vision…there was a bit of a struggle in trying to make the film, maybe, a bit more fantastic. I think he wanted to make more of a 40’s retro romantic film. And so we did have some discussions about “we should add more fantasy into this film, more effect.”
In the same interview Mulcahy admits that he had one misgiving about David Koepp’s script – he never fully bought into the atomic bomb element, which is central to the plot (a pretty big problem to have!), “I think the problem with the script was you have this character (Shiwan Khan) who wants to blow up 1930’s New York with an atomic bomb. And I love fantasy films—that’s my passion genre; thrillers, horrors—but it sort of didn’t make sense when I was filming it…So it was weird.” If the film didn’t make sense to the director at the time of shooting, I am not sure what was expected of the audience!
While praising the set design and effects, they alone do not make a film work. The bright and shiny things catch our attention, but all the neon lights and visual pizzazz cannot mask The Shadow’s failings in plot and structure. Let’s be perfectly honest, the plot is barely there – the final descendant of Genghis Khan comes to NYC to build an atomic bomb to blow up the city. It’s not clear how or why this is going to help him further his globe conquering ambitions, but hey, who am I to argue. It’s not exactly John Le Carré, but when there’s more definition to a toothpick than there is to your plot you’re really relying on your characters to carry you through.
This is unfortunately another stumbling block as none of the characters are fully sketched bar Lamont Cranston/the Shadow and even then, his good vs evil inner conflict is poorly illustrated and emphasised, played for more comic value than anything else. To quote Bob Dylan, “let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late,” The Shadow should have been a darker film; the central character is a former brutal warlord forcefully rehabilitated and battling his own demons as he tries to atone for his wrongdoings. This dichotomy is undercooked, playing on the pantomime elements of villainy as opposed to a more nuanced appraisal of the Shadow character (then again, nuance is not a word you associate with comic book films too often).
This may have been a conscious decision on behalf of the producers, to steer away from the recent Batman films which were quite dark, Batman Returns in particular, and give The Shadow its own tone and identity. But it didn’t work. The natural humour is played straight, and the comedy is forced, some of the action set pieces are oddly flat and the inconsistent quality of each shifts the film from comedy to action without ever fully understanding how they might be able to interplay to the benefit of each other. It makes the tone of the film quite stilted, almost to the point of expecting a knowing wink or a nod to the camera at every quip and smart comment. Yet this is also part of the film’s charm as, let’s not forget, the film is based on a series of pulp fiction novels that were written over 50 years earlier.
Unfortunately, almost none of the Shadow’s agents are presented as anything more than two-dimensional bit players – Roy Tam is purely a character designed for plot exposition and Peter Boyle as Moe Shrevnitz doesn’t get the screen time or the lines he deserves. That said, John Lone’s Shiwan Khan, the film’s chief villain, seems to be the only one really having fun, gleefully chewing scenery and complimenting Cranston’s fashion sense. While this is admittedly an example of the more enjoyable aspects of Shiwan Khan it unfortunately doesn’t add anything resembling depth to his character. And Penelope Ann Miller as Cranston’s squeeze, Margo Lane, seems a little lost for the most part, overdoing almost every scene she’s in as love interest and psychic ally to Cranston. Ian McKellen tries gamely as Margo’s father, but he is wasted by a flat character and Tim Curry, the intended source of comedy no doubt, hams it up brilliantly at the beginning and his sudden descent into madness at the film’s climax is actually one of the more interesting elements of the plot overall.
What is there to love, I hear you say. Well, despite all these disparate elements, The Shadow does coalesce into a satisfying film, complimented quite nicely by one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores. The Shadow is fun, it’s tongue-in-cheek, and, while I have pointed out above why The Shadow was a failure in 1994, after the home video and DVD release quite a fervent cult fanbase emerged. Ten years ago, there was even serious talk of a Sam Raimi led reboot, something that has not, as of yet, come to pass.
The Shadow harks back to a time before crimefighters had fancy gadgets or superhuman abilities and it is this I love. The character is so rich, and while this film may not be perfect, for me it is one whose memory has never left me. I think time has been kind to The Shadow. The effects and the quality of the production design have really stood the test of time and in this era of self-aware superheroes I think The Shadow has emerged from the pall of its own failure 25 years ago. While it may never hold a place in the pantheon of superhero greats, it is a beautiful example of what a vintage era superhero film could and should look like.