In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1994 and six from 1984. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
The Shadow was never meant to materialize in this space, but there’s always a risk in the on-demand aspects of modern-day movie watching. Sometimes you have to roll with it … and find another 20-year-old movie released around the same time to write about. So, what better hairpin turn to take from a technological mishap than this purposefully retro throwback, adapted from an era of print and radio material when “streaming” referred to water?
Masking himself as shallow New York socialite Lamont Cranston, The Shadow (created by Walter B. Gibson in the early 1930s) employed psychic powers to manipulate feeble minds and dispense justice where police dared not patrol. He often did so under the cover of a crimson scarf, a fat-brimmed fedora and a trenchcoat so stiff it practically walked on its own. Most importantly, his powers helped him walk a thin line of civility and cruelty that bisected his soul. Sound familiar? Bob Kane and Bill Finger have cited this vim-filled vigilante with a specialty for nighttime noir as an influence on their creation of Batman nearly a decade later. (They even used one of the many Shadow novels as the impetus for Batman’s initial adventure.)
When it comes to summer movies, though, Batman clearly begat the Shadow — namely Tim Burton’s Batman, whose theretofore-unseen blockbuster boldness burst forth five years earlier, a big-budget behemoth of soundstage grandeur.
And although director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander) visually apes Burton’s tactics and techniques from Dutch angles to aerial shots, he can’t live up to the director’s signature monolithic mania or macabre. It doesn’t help to have a star who seemed more passionate about pursuing a paycheck than the persona of a pained man, and in a role purportedly written with him in mind.
Don’t think it was lost on Alec Baldwin that the 1994 summer calendar, amid which The Shadow essentially came and went with little fanfare, also included Clear & Present Danger. Two decades later, that film remains the highest-grossing Tom Clancy adaptation and starred Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan — a role Baldwin claims he was pushed out of in favor of Ford after The Hunt for Red October.
While the end credits of The Shadow boast of licensing and merchandising few people ever bought, Universal Pictures wasn’t the only one seeking a franchise. A then helmet-haired Baldwin, too, clearly saw it as a way to reclaim the spotlight. But he’s hesitant to huddle up to the horror at, and in, the heart of this (allegedly) hollow man. As if in a rush to decamp to his trailer, Baldwin also speed-reads several scenes. He looks like he’s passing kidney stones during Cranston’s moments of rah-rah dapper-Dan jingoism. He seems disinterested in the formula required to create even the slightest Bruce Wayne-Vicki Vale chemistry with Penelope Ann Miller as Margot Lane, a va-voomy but vapid telepath. And his nose is smoothed down and sized up under the chunky Shadow makeup, resembling a beefier, slightly Botoxed version of himself (essentially his brother William). Not that the script gives Alec a “Let’s get nuts!” bit afforded to Michael Keaton in “Batman.” But he’s so disinterested that he seems like he could hardly be bothered to muster a “Let’s get mildly agitated!” moment. The best aspect of his performance? The husky cockiness that punctuates his staccato, surround-sound cackle whenever he’s lurking as The Shadow.
With such dazzling images as Baldwin tearing his own face off, trailers promised a disturbing, dangerous story about the duality of man. And after conjuring specifically sinister malevolence just years earlier in Malice, Miami Blues and even Glengarry Glen Ross, Baldwin proved himself more than capable of character complexity. But his lethargic turn is hitched to a disjointed screenplay, in which many studio-sanded rough edges are visible. So hurried is the movie to make Cranston likable that it mostly neglects the struggle between light and dark that makes The Shadow interesting at all.
The film opens in the opium fields of Tibet, where Cranston (Baldwin) has holed up under the alias Ying-Ko — claiming a drug trade as the spoils of what we’re told is a brutal war record. After killing one of his own men to off a rival (and yawning at the expenditure of evil energy), Cranston is kidnapped and forced into redemption by the mystical Tulku, who instructs him in the ways of mental manipulation.
Here, The Shadow makes a fatal, if somewhat hilarious, misstep, in its constriction of Cranston’s entire character arc. OK, so the movie can’t spare 12 additional minutes to show us how, let alone why, Cranston is persuaded to purify his soul. What about collapsing his alleged salvation into a two-minute montage? No. The Shadow settles for a screen crawl listing the amazing mysticism Cranston learns before sending him back to New York seven years later for his finely stylized introduction as The Shadow.
There, Cranston butts cerebral cortexes with Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan. He wants to pick up where great-great-great-great-great granddad left off in ruling the world and proves a formidable foe — a fellow student of the Tulku’s powers of persuasion unencumbered by Cranston’s notions to use them for good. Whatever brutality Khan displays feels like the remnant twitch of a phantom limb severed from the screenplay, culminating in a bit where he persuades a sailor to jump off the Empire State Building for the sake of a joke about everything “falling into place.” One sly in-joke remains: Khan’s preferred medium to mesmerize is an omniscient billboard.
Armed with an atomic bomb (a name so coined by Cranston in a clever throwaway bit), Khan threatens to evaporate New York. That the film treats the bomb as a bit of gimcrackery is one of few episodic moments in which The Shadow crackles with life. There is, of course, the inevitable attempt to defuse it … with more than an hour to spare. Piece of cake, right? Here, Koepp pays loving homage to the mounting absurdity of cliffhanger climaxes — as the bomb rolls through the halls of a Midtown Manhattan hotel and into an elevator. (It’s the only scene in which Ian McKellen, as Margot’s dad and the bomb’s inadvertent creator, is given anything at all to do.)
The few-and-far-between fun arises, too, as crackerjack supporting players hearken back to the character’s radio roots. Sab Shimono (as a professor indebted to The Shadow), Peter Boyle (as the Shadow’s driver) and Tim Curry (as a pug-eyed thug for Khan) speak with the clipped cadences and pregnant pauses like seasoned purveyors in theater of the mind.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score confidently strides along on the clickety-clack of castanets, like those you might hear from a nimble-fingered radio effects man. Bits of pulp-fiction Confucianism carried over from the original material (“The weed of crime bears bitter fruit”) lend a playful nostalgia. There’s inspired production design in the Shadow’s “Sanctum” and the little hints of technology that keep Cranston plugged into his sidekicks around the city. Overall, the film offers a beautifully burnished vision of the atomic age’s cusp, from fashion and filigree to opulent architecture. Such fleeting moments of triumph make such glaring, bewildering anachronisms as a Kenny G tune ever more frustrating.
As the story of a hero racked by guilt and perhaps insatiable atonement, The Shadow would have been en vogue just 10 years later. (Imagine the powerful first hour of Batman Begins relegated to a “previously on” recap, and it’s more or less what happens here.) And although Sam Raimi now holds the rights to the film property, his efforts to mount a presumably R-rated remake have apparently hit a wall.
This wasn’t Raimi’s first attempt to make The Shadow, to whom he paid sartorial respect in Darkman several years earlier. That modern classic’s underwhelming box office undoubtedly scared off Universal from working with him on another big property and probably made the suits gun-shy to go to bleak with The Shadow. It’s anyone’s guess whether Raimi another chance to weave a spell with this rich source material. But The Shadow we have is but a temperamental trinket that lacks the temerity to truly explore, as its hero would say, what evil truly lurks in the hearts of men.