There’s something that energizes you about The Shadow before you start picking at its particulars. It has life in it, or the version of life that used to think so highly of itself that it made sure to get punched right after “Son of a …” so kids didn’t have to hear the rest. It’s not just whizzy – it’s gee-whizzy. It has so much of the good-natured Americanness of the old stories it adapts and the world they were written for that you just want to love it. The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow had this too. But even though The Shadow is a beautiful house, a gothic mansion full of rooms that have personality, it barely seems built for humans to live in it, unlike those other simply structured, comfortably blatant adventures. Director Russell Mulcahy only does direct-to-video movies now, and the only thing that seems to differentiate his work on real movies seems to be the budget (his Highlander might fit that description as well). Rarely has a more mediocre architect been gifted with better interior designers.
Just consider the opening of The Shadow. We see an open field in “the Orient,” a temple on a mountain, and then we get this monstrosity: Alec Baldwin, hair below his shoulders, with three-inch fingernails, selling opium to Chinese character actors. Then we have an action scene: Baldwin struggles against a flying dagger with an outdated CGI face, trembling in his greasy wig. And then we get a crawling text opening introducing us to The Shadow. And then we get another opening on a bridge in New York, where gangsters are about to dump a scientist into the river and The Shadow stops them. This is a movie not content with opening only once. Trying to outdo itself will actually come in handy later, but here it could not be more alienating: this is the least appropriate opening of any blockbuster I’ve ever seen. If other kinds of artists constructed something like this, they would be sued. It would be like discovering that your luxurious mansion’s front door opens into the bathroom.
But if we can’t take Mulcahy at his word where the movie is supposed to start, then let’s take The Shadow’s. The scene on the bridge is exactly how you’d want this movie to get going: gangsters quaking at The Shadow’s haughty laugh, a foggy night, a hat brim, a day well-saved. Baldwin is no Orson Welles – he did the radio program that inspired this movie from 1937-38 – but he has the right boyish flair. He’s able to make The Shadow sound not so much all-powerful as someone who wants you to think that he is. This is what makes him perfect.
The Shadow scares people not by hurting them so much as convincing them to be afraid of him; his physical powers are more limited than his psychological ones (I had the good fortune of watching this movie with someone who knows way more about him than I do: it put me in the luxurious position of being able to contextualize The Shadow without expecting anything of it). The concept of his art of deception is why the person who played him would have to believe in themselves to a fault, someone who would read a bad line as though they didn’t even know they meant it that way. If Baldwin had ever played Batman – who was created in the image of The Shadow to begin with – we would have seen the perfect compromise between Adam West and Christian Bale. He’s someone who can say everything seriously, and jokes the most seriously of all. We would believe that he could be a snotty playboy and also that he could be so weird that dressing up as Zorro and punching people would be a form of self-aggrandizement.
Baldwin brings this to The Shadow. As the hero’s alter ego, the wealthy Lamont Cranston, he has a way of looking like he enjoys that you think he doesn’t notice you. If he gave literal asides to the audience, you would hardly feel more invaded by his clever aura and shiny eyes. Beneath Stan Winston’s beautiful prosthetics as The Shadow, Baldwin breaks out by disappearing: left with mostly a voice, Baldwin becomes the radio personality that this character was born with – as an invisible hero created out of an arrogant voice, he becomes the same to the characters in his universe as he is to us on the radio. He works his way into your imagination, as he works his way “into men’s minds.” His straightness has a way of passing beyond ridiculous and becoming classy. He can say things like, “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit,” and you believe him, in two ways: one in which you believe that he really thinks this, and one where you know that the world can actually be so ridiculous that it needs people to have a straight face about it. That’s one way The Shadow saves us from ourselves, and always has. Tell me you can’t hear Adam West reading that line.
This scummy New York City is a place where bad actors can find their perfect role. Everyone in this movie does a smaller version of the stunt at which Baldwin is a virtuoso: convincing you that bad acting can be a great idea. Peter Boyle sparkles as The Shadow’s on-call cabbie with some of the best one-liners (and when he mouths The Shadow’s mantra from the front seat as it’s explained to a new recruit we can feel the weight of a thousand untold adventures: he unfixes The Shadow from time). Tim Curry is profuse in his role as a scientist who sells out to the villain; his eyes are positively buggy (Ian McKellen plays another scientist, which may have only been necessary as an appeasement to the scientists’ workers union after they got a whiff of Curry’s sweaty psychopathy). And as the slippery love interest, Margo Lane, Penelope Ann Miller looks at this world through our own wide eyes and forgets that she signed on to act above it. A scene where she recounts her findings to Lamont is bad, bad enough to threaten the art of sincerity that Baldwin’s badness makes us guilty to love. But it doesn’t topple. In most of the movie, Margo just looks like she’s taking in the Art Deco fever dream like we are.
Here’s a scene that The Shadow does better than Batman (1989), against which it was most certainly compared when it came out in 1994. The villain (John Lone) hypnotizes Margo and orders her to kill The Shadow. As she sees Lamont, she realizes who he is: Baldwin’s cover is convincing, and her surprise is childlike. In Batman, this scene is little more than an aside; The Shadow is great at making sure we remember the people at the center of its effects. But being better doesn’t make it perfect. Here’s the problem with this scene, which becomes the biggest problem with The Shadow: the script by the venerated David Koepp (Spider-Man, Jurassic Park … and also Inferno and The Mummy 2017) has never heard of the concept of a pay-off.
Here’s how the scene should have been set up. Earlier in the film, The Shadow should have saved Margo from bad guys. She might be scared at his intimidation tactics and his brutality but ultimately aroused and curious about being saved by him. To find out that the arrogant panty-waist millionaire who hit on her at the club was actually The Shadow should have been a revelation: her fear would pay off into love (perhaps she might have been on that bridge at the beginning, and that third scientist that Shadow saved could have just been her dad: that would’ve tidied things up a bit).
But she doesn’t meet The Shadow in this movie before knowing that it’s Lamont. She just finds out that the guy she dated once is the vigilante she’s heard about, like he was an undercover movie star hoping to find someone to love him for who he really is. It’s so deflating. All the way back in 1920, Lolita discovered that Diego de la Vega was actually the vigilante Zorro, not in a scene of verbal exposition, but in one of physical transformation: she witnesses the hero Zorro come out of Diego in real-time, when he can’t hold it in anymore. I make this comparison because The Mark of Zorro accomplishes something that The Shadow hoped to: it shows us the most difficult aspect of the dual identity, not that the hero is actually a weakling in disguise, but that the weakling is the hero in disguise. I think this is the only way to explain the purpose of the terrible opening of The Shadow. They wanted you to believe that Lamont had a tough guy in him. But he never really comes out.
This isn’t the only thing that leaves you hanging: the movie has a nasty habit of it. You keep waiting for the movie’s defining fistfight – the equivalent of the takedown of the cop-infested building in The Dark Knight or the hallway of thugs in Oldboy – but it never happens. I wanted more Shadow in this movie. It’s set up that The Shadow can “read men’s minds,” but even armed with something so juicy, the weed of Koepp’s script bears very little. Margo is able to read his mind, which makes for some saucy dialogue but no consequences. She even seems to lose the power when the story needs her to, at one point begging Lamont to tell her what’s going on. A negligent police chief (Jonathan Winters) gets a protracted setup with Lamont at the club but doesn’t have a role in the movie’s climax. At one point, five bad guys, dressed in full Imperial Chinese swordsman armor that someone worked very hard to make, pass out of frame on a hunt for The Shadow in the film’s finale and we just never mention them again. I wanted The Shadow to take them apart – this has got to be the most swords in any movie in history that has zero swordfights.
This is all related to the story, which is The Shadow’s true weakness. The Chinese terrorist feels like a subplot that never gets used for the reasons we’ve come to the movie in the first place: to see bad guys get punched by people who don’t mind saying “the U S of A” like you just insulted their mother. Would you believe that the entire movie comes down to terrible CGI effects of flying daggers and slow-motion exploding mirrors, that push all the way to the end and leave Lamont and Margo time for just one quip before the credits roll? The Shadow’s story rarely has an idea of what we want from it.
But don’t you want to enter its world anyway? That’s the greatest weapon at your disposal to enjoy it: the fact that you already do (baggage is an advantage in this movie, as it isn’t when Superman gets the dour treatment or Spider-Man becomes a douchebag). Every street corner in The Shadow is wet with steam and shadow; the movie often seems to be sculpted out of light. This is a version of the city that never sleeps that has night terrors. Twisting down into the pipelines that carry messages between The Shadow’s informants, scaling up into those delirious nouveau towers, the movie becomes a living thing, more so because The Shadow is equipped to take light and set design and weaponize it. It has the spark of the great movie cities, a place that has seen Metropolis and is looking ahead to Dark City. The fraction we see of it is somewhat uneventful, but so what? The Shadow has always lived in imagination. It’s there that he can still save us, when modern superhero movies just get too passable for our own good. And it’s there that we can save him too: remember that he’s only as powerful as you think he is.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
David Koepp (screenplay)
Walter B. Gibson (characters)
|Lamont Cranston/The Shadow||Alec Baldwin|
|Shiwan Khan||John Lone|
|Margo Lane||Penelope Ann Miller|
|Moses "Moe" Shrevnitz||Peter Boyle|
|Dr. Reinhardt Lane||Ian McKellen|
|Farley Claymore||Tim Curry|
|Wainwright Barth||Jonathan Winters|