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 instalment considers James Wong Howe and John Sledge’s The Invisible Avenger.
(NOTE: The version of The Invisible Avenger under discussion is the original theatrical version, and not the 1962 re-release titled Bourbon Street Shadows, which reputedly contains additional “adult” content.)
As I noted in my review of the film Behind the Mask last October, the Shadow has not had a particularly great track record when it comes to his cinematic outings. The property has primarily been the basis for low-to-no-budget film productions, most of which demonstrate no understanding of the character, be it the original pulp novel version or more famous radio interpretation. The only solace fans can take from the Shadow’s track record in film is that Hollywood keeps on trying to bring the character to the big screen no matter how many failures have been released.
Having said that, it is only fair to point out that one of the Shadow’s cinematic endeavours, the 1958 film The Invisible Avenger, was born out of a failure to translate the character to a medium where he has an even worse track record: television. Comprised of the only two episodes ever produced for a proposed television series, The Invisible Avenger is noteworthy for being the only Shadow film prior to the 1994 Russell Mulcahy effort to feature the character’s famous ability to “cloud men’s minds”, an ability which was first introduced in the radio series.
While the 1994 Shadow film attempts to merge the radio and pulp versions of character together, The Invisible Avenger takes the more straightforward approach of (more or less) porting over the radio series to television; as such, elements from the pulp novels, including the Shadow’s iconic “costume”, elaborate support network and the Kent Allard identity are nowhere to be found. This version of the Shadow is simply Lamont Cranston (Richard Derr), a wealthy man who, along with his teacher in the mystic arts Jogendra (Mark Daniels), investigate the murder of a New Orleans trumpet player. During his investigation, Cranston discovers a plot to assassinate an exiled president of a South American country, and his efforts to stop this murder bring him into conflict with the most inept of secret police.
Considered in the context of early television history, the choice to transfer the radio show incarnation of the Shadow to television is one which makes sense: the first three major television networks (NBC, CBS and ABC) began life as radio networks, and other radio dramas, such as Dragnet and The Adventures of Superman, were transposed onto television to great success. However, while Dragnet‘s lean, mean style and verisimilitude lends itself to the visual medium of television, as do the action/adventure elements of Superman, The Shadow radio show relies primarily on the atmosphere generated by the invisibility gimmick which puts the listener in the same position as those who encounter the titular character. Stripped of this gimmick, The Shadow program would be indistinct from any of the other various mystery thrillers produced during the golden age of radio.
While The Invisible Avenger retains the gimmick, its use here in a visual medium underscores just how radio specific the concept is. Instead of sharing in the disorientation and the fear of the Shadow’s targets, viewers are left to watch repeated scenes of people twirling around and crying out in confusion. Worse, knowing what Cranston is capable of, viewers are left to wonder why he doesn’t bother using his abilities at all times, rather than skulking about like a cheap detective for most of the film’s running length. The answer of course is that invisible beings are not visually interesting; or, to be more precise, invisible beings are not visually interesting when featured in cheap, quickly shot productions.
Someone involved in the making of The Invisible Avenger must have realized the problems with the Shadow’s abilities at some point, as there is a half-hearted effort at expanding them to include telepathy and the ability to project illusions (a power also featured in the 1994 film). Their inclusion however only results in further questions, such as why Cranston and Jogendra don’t use their abilities more often and in more inventive ways.
Beyond the issue of the inclusion of the Shadow’s mystic abilities, there is really nothing much of value worth addressing with regards to The Invisible Avenger, as it is nothing more than a painfully pedestrian poverty row production. Derr and Daniels are ok actors, but they lack charisma and the chemistry needed to carry a film, let alone a weekly television program. The script from George Bellak and Betty Jeffries is just flat out terrible, while the direction of James Wong Howe and John Sledge is about what one would expect from an extremely cheap television pilot: workmanlike and without any sense of style.
With a running time of less than an hour, the film isn’t much of a time investment for Shadow fans or the morbidly curious, but it is best avoided by everyone else. Those wanting to dive into the world of the Shadow via visual media are better off waiting for the Blu-Ray release of the 1994 film coming from the Shout Factory later this month, and/or checking out the Shadow comics published by Dynamite Entertainment.
The Invisible Avenger (1958, USA, 56 minutes). Directed by James Wong Howe and John Sledge. Written by George Bellak and Betty Jeffries. Starring Richard Derr, Mark Daniels and Helen Westcott.