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 The Shadow (1994), directed by Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, Give ’em Hell Malone).
If you have been reading my Comic Books in Spirit reviews over the past few months, you’ve probably figured out that I am a fan of the pulp character The Shadow. While I am by no means an expert on the character and his history, the reason I’ve spent time tracking down and reviewing films such as Behind the Mask and The Invisible Avenger is because I do find the exploits of The Shadow across various media fascinating. A forebear to characters such as Batman, the history of The Shadow is an odd puzzle. At the height of his popularity, there were two similar-yet-distinct incarnations of character: the radio mystic detective and pulp novel adventurer. Following the 1950s, the character primarily moved into comics, jumping from one publisher to another, with various writers trying to merge the two distinct versions of The Shadow together. These attempts have had various degrees of success, with the current Dynamite Entertainment publications arguably being the most successful thus far. As a geek, this is the kind of history I love to eat up.
However, if you want to know what started my fascination with the character, then you have to look no further than the 1994 film The Shadow, which has just been given darn fine Blu-Ray release from the Shout! Factory in honour of the film’s twentieth anniversary. Written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and directed by Russell Mulcahy, The Shadow is part of a wave of retro-hero films released in the early-to-mid 1990s, which include Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer,and The Phantom. While not the best of this wave of films, The Shadow is easily the one that had the biggest impact on me during my youth, and the film remains a personal favourite despite how Mulcahy and Koepp’s approach to the material does not quite fit the story being told.
The Shadow presents audiences with an origin tale of the titular character. As the film opens, Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock) is living in Tibet after the First World War under the name Ying-Ko, running a drug empire and living a hedonistic lifestyle. Shortly after killing a rival criminal, Cranston is kidnapped by a group of Buddhist monks whose leader believes Cranston has the capacity to do good in the world. Lacking any real say in the matter, Cranston is placed on the path to redemption, and is taught a mystical form of hypnosis which allows him to “cloud men’s minds.” This ability renders him effectively invisible, and allows him to influence the minds of others.
This setup for the film, with Cranston as a brutal criminal pretty much forced into becoming a heroic avenger, is a strong hook for the narrative, and is distinct enough to allow The Shadow to stand apart from other films in the superhero genre. However, these opening scenes also serve as a perfect example of the problem with Koepp and Mulcahy’s approach to The Shadow. While the duo try to capture to capture the style of Classic Hollywood filmmaking in the 1930s—and, to be fair, they mostly succeed—they fall into the trap which most films trying to create such a pastiche fall into: they capture the style they want, but not the atmospheric/emotional intent the style was originally supposed to express and/or provoke from the audience.
Consider Alec Baldwin’s performance in the opening scenes of the film. An actor of Baldwin’s skill should have no trouble capturing the darkness of Cranston, yet given the writing and direction, Baldwin comes across as if he is trying to imitate what an actor in a 1930s film would play evil as, rather than simply trying to perform the character. As a result, the supposed internal struggle Cranston faces throughout the rest of the film carries little dramatic weight; there is no jeopardy of Cranston giving into his inner darkness because said darkness never feels like anything more than a guise in the first place.
This issue also means that The Shadow never comes across as the frightening figure he is intended to be. The Shadow identity is supposedly where Cranston channels his darker impulses, but it comes across as an overblown theatrical performance. Take the character’s the iconic laugh: instead of being a frightening expression of real joy on the part of Cranston, it comes across as forced, something Cranston does because he thinks it will frighten criminals. Baldwin isn’t helped by the makeup he wears while in full costume, which buries his face in a well-meaning-but-mistaken effort to have him look closer to the image of The Shadow from the classic pulp magazine covers. The makeup only succeeds in limiting Baldwin’s ability to make use of his rather expressive eyes, an element which could only have helped Baldwin in the role.
Despite these missteps, the film finds itself on surer footing once it jumps ahead seven years and the setting moves to New York, where Cranston has resumed his pre-War life as a wealthy man-about-town and has taken up his duties as The Shadow. It is at this point where the plot of the film kicks in, as Shiwan Khan (John Lone, War), the last descendent of Genghis Khan and fellow student of the monks who taught Cranston his abilities, comes to the city to utilize the work of scientist Dr. Lane (Ian McKellen, The Keep) to build a nuclear bomb. Khan plans to use the bomb to hold the nations of the world hostage, and thus complete his ancestor’s goal of conquering the world. Complicating Cranston’s battle with Khan is his own own romantic involvement with Dr. Lane’s daughter Margo (Penelope Ann Miller, Chaplin), a woman whose own innate psychic abilities allow her to read Cranston’s mind and prevents him from keeping her out his battle against Khan.
The narrative at this point becomes much lighter, pulpier, and fantastic, and as such Koepp and Mulcahy’s pastiche approach works far better than in the earlier sections of the film. Baldwin is particular benefits from this shift, as he is allowed to make use of his natural charm and comedic gifts, and Koepp’s script provides him with some fun banter to engage in with Miller and Lone, both of whom are great verbal sparring partners. Adding to the charm of the film is the killer supporting cast, which includes Tim Curry (Annie), Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver), Jonathan Winters (It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), and Sab Shimono (Gung Ho). None of these actors have particularly large parts, and, in the case of Curry at least, are given material which is a bit too broad. Each actor does manage to make the most of the roles they are given though, with Boyle in particular turning in a delightful performance as a taxi driver-cum-personal cabbie for Cranston.
Another point in the film’s favour is how it makes use of the Margo Lane character. It almost goes without saying (sadly) that most female roles in superhero action films are simple damsels in distress or passive, supporting romantic partners (usually both). While Margo is a romantic interest in the film, the character is a far more active participant in the events of the film, challenging Cranston throughout and being allowed to get in on the action. Koepp’s script even manages to involve Margo in the climax without reducing her character into a mere victim and/or plot point, so kudos to Koepp for giving Miller something to do other than simply be an object to be gazed upon.
Speaking of gazing, if there is one reason to pick up the Shout! Factory’s new Blu-Ray release of the film, it is to check out of the work of Production Designer Joseph Nemec III (The Saint, Riddick), who was tasked with creating 1930s New York. His sets are simply gorgeous, rich in detail and design, and are perfectly captured by the cinematography of Stephen H. Burum (Snake Eyes). Granted, I am a sucker for Art Deco, but for those who share my taste for the style are going to be richly rewarded for checking out this edition of the film.
Of course, there will be a segment of Shadow fans who are always going to be disappointed in the film, particularly given that in the twenty years since the film’s release another attempt at The Shadow on the silver screen has yet to materialize and take the burden off of this film’s shoulders. Still, of the films featuring the character thus far, The Shadow is hands down the best of the lot, and at the very least can be appreciated for being the well-meaning effort that it is. Plus, for those wanting to share the character with whatever kids they may have, the film is a great gateway into the overall history of the character. It worked on me, that’s for sure.
The Shadow (1994, USA, 108 minutes). Directed by Russell Mulcahy. Written by David Koepp. Starring Alec Baldwin, Penelope Ann Miller and John Lone.