Another of the 1990s’ perverse attempts to fashion successful movies from superhero properties with little appeal to the general public. The Shadow, like the later The Phantom, is set in the 1930s, and like that movie, the period setting is ultimately a hindrance. Not because director Russell Mulcahy is unable to evoke a period sensibility – he’s actually one of the picture’s strengths – but because there’s a persistent sense that all that can be afforded is the art direction, leaving a rather barren New York. It’s thus a visual reflection of David Koepp’s screenplay, one that offers little in the way of a developed environment or dynamic sensibility.
Producer Martin Bregman, best known for his crime fare – Serpico, Scarface, Sea of Love – had optioned Walter B Gibson’s pulp fiction character in 1982. By which point the character was more than half a century old and most famous for being voiced by Orson Welles, of course. So the question with this sort of material always ought to be: if it no longer retains a foothold in the public imagination (in contrast to the DC stable’s best), what can be done to make it appeal to a modern audience? No one seems to have worked that out with The Shadow, relying instead on a vague “Well, it influenced Batman, so there’s that”.
Bregman was angling for Robert Zemeckis to direct, but the guy who really wanted it was Sam Raimi; eventually, he channelled his yen into his own character, Darkman. Which made about the same money as The Shadow, but came in at about a third of the price tag, meaning it was regarded as an unabashed hit (and duly spawned two straight-to-video sequels). Raimi’s visually excitable style, along with a present-day setting and giddy comic-book allure arriving so soon after Batman, made its reception all-round appealing to both critics and audiences. The Shadow, though, had everyone rather scratching their heads and asking “Why?”
The premise of the character – who had various iterations, abilities and aliases in the stories, on the page, radio and screen – is distinctive enough; he’s able to read thoughts and cloud men’s minds. Koepp, as is the screenwriter’s wont, came up with the movie’s atonement backstory, which is at least a different furrow for the average superhero to plough, although possibly also a little facile (in answer to “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” it’s the Shadow, as he has been evil himself). Lamont Cranston was written with Alec Baldwin in mind, it seems, and he’s generally a good fit for a period setting, even if his wig in the first scene (where he’s a drug lord in Tibet) is fooling no one. Baldwin’s fine, but what’s needed here is to make something indelible of the role, and he can’t.
Cranston’s New York posturing as a playboy type, once he’s returned to old haunts, will be familiar to all, though, and he has an uncle (Jonathan Winters) bemoaning his slack ways. Indeed, Mulcahy and Koepp set Lamont/the Shadow up reasonably intriguingly via his abilities and his manner, from laughing sinisterly to hoodwinking his victims. In tandem with De Palma cinematographer Stephen H Burum (Mulcahy was likely thinking of his work on The Untouchables, at least in part), the visuals are frequently memorable and lustrous, from the chiaroscuro effect when The Shadow sets to work on someone – notably his uncle: “You know, I think they just made up the Shadow so people would listen to the radio more” – to the use of split diopter.
Mulcahy diplomatically suggested he didn’t quite get what he wanted onto the screen, that Bregman “had a slightly different vision of the film than I did. So, for example, with the knife. I wanted that to come to life and be animated. And 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 40s retro romantic film. And so we did have some discussions about ‘we should add more fantasy into this film, more effect’” and “Yeah. I guess I wanted to make it a bit stranger. And I think he had a different vision. So I think there’s sort of a crash of visions”.
Some of Mulchay’s vision makes it into the finished movie, notably the almost Raimi-esque dream sequence, where Cranston ends up tearing off his face, and the exploding mirrors finale. On the other hand, he can’t really do much to beef up a strictly pulp peril sequence where Cranston is on the verge of drowning in a flooding silo and must psychically call to Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller)
Curious too is the way in which the Shadow’s network of agents is really rather sinister; anyone he saves is henceforth indebted to him. They must wear his ring at all times, and keep him informed in respect of anything he requests. It’s all a bit mafia/masonic, complete with code phrases (“When you hear one of my agents say ‘The Sun is shining’ you will respond ‘But the ice is slippery’”).
Something that also can’t be understated is that, in terms of would-be iconic heroes, The Shadow is a bust. He was very much designed for radio, as movies go, and no one, absolutely no one, is going to see this movie on the basis that the hero he looks cool. However character-accurate the Shadow persona’s look may be, it’s an aesthetic no-go, rather resembling Ash with his overstretched features in Army of Darkness. I like the idea conceptually, but at the same time you’re left asking “Why the long face?”
The relationship between Lamont and Margo is set up effectively – she has psychic abilities such that his spell has no effect on her – but Miller manages to make the character on the annoying side. Margo isn’t far off the Willie Scott scale, leaving me pondering that there may be a reason none of Miller’s leads are very memorable, at least not in a performance respect. In direct contrast, John Lone (The Last Emperor) makes for a decent villain, even if his beard is less than mighty (there’s a problem with hair in this movie); Shiwan Khan – a recurring baddie in the stories – claims to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. Unfortunately, Lone can do nothing to ameliorate Khan’s evil plan being pants.
Mulcahy was right to point to a problem here, although suggesting blowing up New York with an atomic bomb didn’t work because “we knew New York [laughing] didn’t blow up in the 1930’s with an atomic bomb. So it was weird” is worryingly restrictive reasoning and seriously underestimates audience suspension of disbelief (although, anyone unwilling to throw the Highlander II screenplay in the nearest bin immediately upon glancing at it clearly has issues when it comes to judging material). No, the problem is that the scheme is derivative and lazy, and enacted in a mechanical fashion shorn of any suspense or intrigue.
Which rather means that Ian McKellen (as the bomb maker) isn’t best used in one of his early Hollywood outings (well, early in terms of his ’90s breakout). Tim Curry is cowardly, sweaty and spineless, and gives it his all as ever, but he doesn’t have much of a part either. Indeed, the movie wastes a mostly strong supporting cast that includes Peter Boyle, Andre Gregory and James Hong (Ethan Phillips only gets one scene, so there’s an upside).
There are a few nice ideas are thrown in: a hotel disguised in plain sight through mass hypnosis; the final fate of Khan by way of the removal of a section of his frontal lobe: “It’s the part nobody ever uses – unless you believe in telepathy”. But The Shadow is mostly prevented from becoming a truly worthy cult because Koepp failed to deliver on the script front.
That would be a problem with most of Mulcahy’s ’90s projects, but this one proved particularly crucial, as he stopped getting the calls about big studio fare soon thereafter. Instead, he drifted towards TV, as did many of his peer group (this included an impressive tally of forty episodes of Teen Wolf). I was firmly in Mulcahy’s corner ever since Highlander, no matter how many Highlander IIs he bloiked up; he was a former music video director who continued to attempt creative flourish, regardless of how unimaginative his producers were. You can see that in The Shadow, even if the movie as a whole is a something of a disappointment.