While the domination of cinema screens by comic book adaptations may be a recent phenomenon, comics themselves have always had an influence upon cinema in both direct and indirect ways. This series of reviews will look at the films which are not based on comics, but are comic books in spirit. This installment considers Phil Karlson’s Behind the Mask (a.k.a. The Shadow Behind the Mask).
He may have originated (more or less) in the pulp novels of the 1930s, but fans unfamiliar with the history of The Shadow can be forgiven for thinking the character is a comic book superhero. With an iconic “costume” (from the pulp covers), a secret identity (plus a secret identity within a secret identity for readers of the pulp novels), and what comic book fans would call superpowers (at least in the radio version, arguably the most famous interpretation there has ever been of the character), the Shadow ticks off all the major boxes for what we think of as a comic book superhero.
Part of the reason for that is because the Shadow was a partial inspiration of one of the most influential comic book characters of all time: Batman. It is thus no surprise that while many pulp adventurers have faded away, the Shadow has been the subject of many successful comic book revivals. As of this writing, the Shadow is enjoying renewed success in comics thanks to Dynamite Entertainment, which publishes several titles featuring the character.
One medium where the Shadow has struggled for success though is film. Having mainly served as the subject of low budget productions at poverty row studios such as Grand National Pictures, the Shadow’s cinematic history is fascinating for the way in which the various productions have seemed bent on stripping the character of his comic book “spirit.” Indeed, while comic book heroes such as Captain America and Batman have suffered and survived through shoddy cinematic efforts which have veered away from their source material, neither has quite gone through an adaptation which tries to totally strip the material of its comic book charms.
Behind the Mask, the second of three Shadow films produced by Monogram Pictures (and seemingly the only one currently available on home video), is not the worst offender with regards to stripping the Shadow of his comic book style; that “honour” is shared by the tedious films The Shadow Strikes and International Crime. Behind the Mask is not far behind however, as the filmmakers try their best to transform the Shadow into a screwball comedy mystery, with any costumed adventuring pushed as far to the margins as possible.
The film opens promisingly enough as we are introduced to Jeff Mann (James Cardwell), a reporter blackmailing local nightclubs to keep their names and illegal activities out of the paper. The atmosphere of these opening scenes are appropriately dark and seedy as one would expect from a Shadow story, though the writing and direction are fairly obvious in how they setup each of Mann’s victims as a suspect in his eventual murder. Still, when Mann is killed in his office, a soon-to-be-standard plot device of the superhero film is employed: the framing of the masked hero for a crime they didn’t commit (see Batman Returns, Daredevil, etc.).
The film at this point introduces out hero, Lamont Cranston (Kane Richmond), a wealthy socialite who is set to be married to Margo Lane (Barbara Reed), and who at night prowls the streets as the Shadow. It is also at this point that fans should abandon any hope for something resembling either the pulp or radio versions of the character. Instead of a dark avenger, Cranston is a flippant, boyish flirt and amateur detective, while Lane is presented as a jealous, paranoid, and meddlesome individual who is constantly and “comically” getting in the way of Cranston’s investigation behind the framing of the Shadow.
From this point on, the film pretty much follows one comedy set piece after another, with the obvious and idiotic mystery ostensibly being investigated. Those hoping to see much of Cranston as the Shadow will be disappointed by the limited screen time given to the costumed alter ego. Limited appearances of the super heroic identity are not uncommon in films of the classic Hollywood era, but Behind the Mask differs from other films of its type in treating the costumed identity of Cranston as incidental. Cranston is so quick to throw himself into the police investigation in his real identity that one has to wonder why he even bothers with a secret identity at all, a point further underscored by the fact that the police commissioner seems more than happy to have Cranston on the case. Only two sequences feature the Shadow identity to any significant degree, and of those, one involves Cranston fighting alongside his plainclothes dressed comedic relief servant/sidekick, making the costumed identity even more pointless.
However, it is hard to really care about the absence of the Shadow when one is distracted by the endless misogyny displayed throughout the film. Indeed, given how thin the mystery is, the primary focus of the film rests on Cranston dealing with Margo barging into his investigation. For her supposed “transgressions” into Lamont’s world, Margo is dealt an increasingly perverse set of punishments, all of which are played for laughs. For example, Behind the Mask is the (thankfully) rare film in which the audiences is asked to laugh at the romantic lead being punched by both the villain AND the hero. When Margo later complains that Cranston hit her harder than the killer, Cranston’s response is couched in gender stereotypes: according to him, his punch to her jaw felt harder because he is “more of a man.” And yes, for some reason, we are expected to find that response charming.
Still, not even that prepared me for the final moments of the film, when the misogyny is cranked up to a level which one might expect from a Family Guy-style parody of the sexual politics of classic Hollywood. With the murder mystery wrapped up, Cranston states that he is finally going to give Margo what he has been “promising” her. Cranston then proceeds to pull Margo over his lap and spank her. As if this shocking moment couldn’t get any worse, a running gag in which Cranston and Margo’s respective servants mimic their masters in a repugnant attempt to introduce class comedy/commentary into the film reaches its climax as Cranston’s servant proceeds to do the exact same thing to his counterpart, with a wink at his boss as he does it no less.
Beyond being horrifying, there is something eerily childish about the relationship between sexes and how they relate in Behind the Mask. One cannot help but feel some sort of anxiety underlying the film, an almost pathological fear of not being considered enough of a film for young boys/men if the presentation of gender roles were to evolve past how a five year old boy who thinks girls have cooties understands them. This is a world, it seems, in which women cannot dress up and play hero. No, in the world of Behind the Mask, women just think about marriage, and marriage is a threat towards being a “man.” It is the worst of the Golden Age of comics’ politics written large on the silver screen, and boy, is it ugly. Naturally, I assume Dan DiDio loves this film.
What makes these misogynistic overtones in the film all the more horrendous and frustrating is that the film does manage to earn a fair bit of goodwill via of the performances of Richmond and Reed. Neither is playing the characters remotely close to what one would find in the pulp novels or on radio, but both bring a degree of charm to their roles which makes for fun viewing until the film fully embraces the He-Man, Woman-hating view of the world. Reed in particular brings a great deal of spunk to Margo Lane which isn’t in the script. Richard delivers what is expected of him as Cranston, but once Cranston’s horrendous treatment of Margo boils to the surface, there is just no redeeming the character.
On the whole, Behind the Mask is a film worth skipping, but if you are like myself and feel compelled to check it out, it is available as an MOD DVD from MGM.
Behind the Mask (1946, USA, 67 minutes). Directed by Phil Karlson. Written by George Callahan. Starring Kane Richmond and Barbara Reed.