The Shadow from director Russell Mulcahy, arrived in the midst of a comic book movie explosion during the early 1990s, which began with the success of Batman in 1989. Tim Burton’s Golden Age inspired take on the Dark Knight was followed closely by a slew of films based on, or inspired by classic Pulp Comic characters. Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, and Sam Raimi’s first foray into superhero cinema with Darkman (a character heavily inspired by The Shadow and Batman) came soon after, with Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer and Burton’s follow up, Batman Returns arriving just one year later.
Released in 1994, the film was produced for a relatively meagre budget of $40 million and was positioned to be the year’s summer blockbuster. The predicted box office success failed to materialise, however, and the film earned a disappointingly small profit from its theatrical run, halting a proposed franchise in its tracks. The summer of 1994 offered stiff competition, and the film was sandwiched between two hugely successful CBMs in Alex Proyas’ breakout film The Crow, and Jim Carrey-led smash-hit The Mask. This unenviable release window may have hindered the film’s success somewhat, as did the less than favourable reviews of the time, but it has gained a strong cult following since its release on home media and stands the test of time surprisingly well.
WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE HEARTS OF MEN?
The story opens in the mountains of Tibet, where we meet Ying Ko (the eagle’s beak), a morally reprehensible warlord and opium trader. Ying Ko is actually Lamont Cranston, a World War I veteran lost in the maze of his fractured psyche; a state of mind triggered by experiences of the Great War. The world Cranston has chosen to inhabit is darkly alluring, awash with a hedonistic blend of debauchery and brutality. His life is transformed, however, when he is kidnapped by servants of the Tulku; a Tibetan Mystic who possesses supernatural psychic powers.
The Tulku offers Cranston a chance to regain his humanity; a path of higher purpose leading to redemption. At first resistant to accepting this straightening of his moral compass, Cranston accedes to the Tulku’s wisdom. He spends the next seven years learning psychic hypnosis, enabling him to ‘cloud men’s minds‘, leaving only his shadow visible. Forever changed by the experience, Cranston embarks on a crusade against the criminals and corrupt of New York as the supernatural avenger, The Shadow.
THE SHADOW IS BORN!
Cranston conceals his vigilante alter-ego beneath the guise of a foppish millionaire playboy and socialite, using illusion to further protect his anonymity. A secretive network of spies and couriers help him on his crusade, comprised of members of the public each indebted to The Shadow. Each member is gifted a symbolic ruby ring, which flares bright red when their assistance is required. Cranston is also joined on his quest by socialite Margot Lane, a latent telepath unaware of her potential.
The Shadow must save the city from the evil machinations of arch-nemesis Shiwan Khan; a former student of the Tulku and the last remaining descendant of Genghis Khan. Seeking world domination akin to his notorious forebear, he turns to modern scientific methods to weaponise bronzium, and create a doomsday device that will destroy New York.
The first thing you notice about The Shadow is how fantastic it looks. From a stylistic perspective, Mulcahy’s unique visual sense shines through, creating a richly detailed, expressionistic, and darkly intriguing world. The characters who populate it are drawn large; much in keeping with the nature of the source material. The film is set in depression-era New York, and the overall tone is clearly informed by Art Deco and Film Noir sensibilities. Scenes taking place at night are cleverly shot using directional lighting to further enhance the noirish ambience.
Other neat visual flourishes include those Tim Burton inspired sweeping model shots, each of which are beautifully constructed and well-executed. The film exudes a genuine sense of scale overall, due in large part to the way exterior shots have been enhanced by digital mattes and early CGI. The result is fantastical, but believable cityscapes that help ground the film in its own hyper-reality.
Joseph C. Nemec III’s Production design is simply wonderful, and there are some brilliantly constructed sets that deserve recognition. The ‘information hub’ and ‘The Shadow’s computer’ are both great design examples, featuring elements drawn from retro-futurism. Costume designer Bob Ringwood brings his considerable experience to bear in creating authentic-looking period attire. In particular, the lead character’s costume is a satisfyingly faithful reproduction of the original character design.
NOT EXACTLY CITIZEN KANE
As with most action-adventure films of this type, continual exposition keeps the audience informed. If you are seeking nuanced character development and exploration of profound ideas, you won’t find it here. In the modern era, the simplicity of storytelling and adherence to genre convention has largely been eschewed in favour of more stylistic, subversive, and thought-provoking deconstructions. These interpretations tend to underpinned by darker tonalities, and loaded with prominent issues of the Zeitgeist. Not so for The Shadow. Typical genre tropes are heavily employed, with only brief hints at more meaningful themes. Redemption; the dark side of man; the psychological effects of war; science subverted for a militaristic purpose; and the power of mass marketing are superficially explored. There are a few comedic moments peppered throughout, but overall, they feel redundant and add little to the film.
CASTING A SHADOW
Aside from the memorable visuals, the film also boasts a hugely impressive cast; one that would take a little more financial clout to assemble in the current climate. Alec Baldwin stars as Lamont Cranston/The Shadow with John Lone as Shiwan Khan. An impressive supporting cast also includes Sir Ian McKellen, Penelope Anne Miller, Peter Boyle, James Hong, and Tim Curry.
Baldwin’s performance is particularly on-point, and he’s a surprisingly good fit for the lead character. He’s also in great physical condition, and handles the action scenes with verve and confidence. His opposite number, John Lone, is a textbook comic-book villain, clearly enjoying himself in a thoroughly outlandish performance. Penelope Anne Miller is believable if a little one dimensional as Margot Lane, albeit hampered by a less than stellar script.
Genre heavyweight Sir Ian McKellen appears as atomic scientist Reinhardt Lane. Sadly, his performance loses some credibility points by dint of an awful American accent. Tim Curry hovers around the periphery, and shamelessly chews the scenery at any given opportunity. Peter Boyle is dependable as always, even if a little underused. With a more substantial role, he could perhaps have lent the film a little more gravitas.
The action is brilliantly supported by Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing classical score in the best traditions of Korngold, Hermann, and Williams. The music blends seamlessly with the action, and never once feels out of place. In keeping with the film’s setting and tone, Goldsmith employs rare movie music techniques, like “Mickey-Mousing“, to mimic onscreen action. In addition, he uses more recognisable techniques, such as recurring Wagnerian motifs to denote character and place and create a suitably heroic central theme.
While there are obvious evolutionary differences from a contemporary CBM, The Shadow still holds up well upon re-watching. Sure, it doesn’t ask deep, searching questions, or demand your attention with ground-breaking visuals. Some films are just simple tales of good versus evil, and that’s where The Shadow excels. It embraces the fantastical nature of the original source material and runs with it to great effect. The long box of comic-book movie history is filled with many hidden or under-appreciated gems that deserve some attention, and this is just one of them.
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