The Shadow

shadowfeattured1To many fans, the Shadow — who hit his peak of popularity in the ’30s and ’40s, on radio and in pulp magazines — isn’t terribly interesting in and of himself. He has a set of tricks, mostly involving the clouding of men’s minds; he packs two .45s that he isn’t shy about using; and that’s about all there is to him. What a lot of people enjoyed in the Shadow’s adventures was his army of loyal agents. He had no personality; his agents never felt free to bend the elbow with him after helping him send some villains to a better life. But they owed their lives to him, and were devoted to him. The agents provided a core of humanity, and we identified with them as they tried to carry out their dark master’s latest strange assignment.

The main problem with The Shadow, the attractive but empty new movie about the legend, is that the agents take a back seat. Instead, the script (credited to David Koepp) goes the other way and humanizes the Shadow. As played by Alec Baldwin, he’s now a conflicted, weary man struggling with the darkness of his past and his guilt over his violent instincts. This stab at Unforgiven-style moral ambiguity doesn’t fit this character, who should be no more troubled by his casual fascism than Dirty Harry would be. The Shadow of this movie is basically Batman with a hocus-pocus background. He doesn’t just fight evil, he fights the evil in himself; he “knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men” because it lurks in his, too. Sorry, I prefer the Shadow straight up, no psychobabble chaser. Don’t the moviemakers know that if they shed analytical light on the Shadow, he ceases to be, well, shadowy?

The movie looks fine. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, who previously perpetrated Highlander and Ricochet, The Shadow is immeasurably better than those films, which isn’t saying much. Mulcahy unveils a sumptuous ’20s milieu, with lavishly detailed sets that I hope to see adorning a good movie someday. The look is neither gothic (Batman) nor Sunday-funnies (Dick Tracy); the designers may have taken DC’s Shadow comic books of the ’70s, drawn by that master of mood Michael Wm. Kaluta, as their blueprint. The streets are consistently gray, as if the Shadow had already clouded everyone’s mind. In other scenes, when the Shadow slips into his society-lad identity Lamont Cranston and schmoozes at the Cobalt Club, the atmosphere is pleasurably ritzy. You wouldn’t be surprised if Howard Hughes dropped in, the way he did in The Rocketeer.

Yet they’ve painted such a lovely art-deco-film-noir city for the Shadow to live in without giving him much to do there. The script pits him against a nasty warrior (John Lone) who’s supposed to be a descendant of Genghis Khan. Lone, who should have left this inscrutable-Oriental crap in the dust after slumming in Year of the Dragon, plays Khan without irony, a fatal mistake. Khan, who wants to take out New York with an atomic bomb (I couldn’t tell you why, really), also knows what evil lurks in the Shadow’s heart. Underneath, Khan insists, they’re both barbarians. This gives the Shadow many boring occasions to doubt himself.

Meanwhile, the Shadow’s operatives … well, they sit around and wait to be called. The Shadow’s cabbie, Moe Shrevnitz (Peter Boyle), miraculously appears whenever his master needs to be somewhere fast. (And why does nobody call the cabbie by his nickname, Shrevvy?) Dr. Tam (Sab Shimono) seems to be in the movie to defuse charges of racism, but though we see the Shadow saving his life near the beginning, we never see Tam repay the favor. (Okay, so he identifies the metal of an ancient coin — big whoop.) Harry Vincent, one of the Shadow’s key agents, is absent. And if you blink, you miss the computer whiz Burbank (Andre Gregory — why is he even in this?). The script comes right out and acknowledges the agents’ uselessness in a rather sorry shot of Shrevvy standing outside bored in the rain, while the Shadow is inside saving New York.

The agent who most detains the camera is Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), who has been re-imagined as a very odd woman who “hears voices.” Actually, she’s a psychic (which is news to me), and she develops an instinctive rapport with the Shadow. She also falls in love with him, following in the footsteps of Michelle Pfeiffer in Wolf — a woman fascinated by a good man’s dark side. What he, in turn, sees in her besides her cleavage is unclear. The Shadow is, or should be, the least likely hero to succumb to the tender emotions, but at the end, of course, he must smooch Margo. Can’t she just be a dedicated, competent agent? Why must she bloom into a gratuitous rose to be plucked by Alec Baldwin? Miller gives the latest in a string of bland performances, in which the only tension is her almost falling out of her dress in every scene.

As for Baldwin, he’s better than I expected. He’s young and handsome enough to pass as Lamont Cranston, and Mulcahy has given him the trademark big nose in his scenes as the Shadow (the better, I guess, to sniff out crime). His Shadow is adequately intimidating, though his laugh can’t touch the blood-freezing chuckle I remember from the radio show. (Tim Curry, as a wormy crook who throws in with Khan, has a much more sinister laugh; he’s so exquisitely slimy he easily steals the movie.) Baldwin does show some wit when Cranston, posing as one of his own operatives, turns up at Dr. Tam’s house; Cranston seems to enjoy this self-effacing Henry V disguise.

Will you like The Shadow more if, unlike me, you have no preconceived ideas about how it should be done? Maybe, but what’s on the screen is so tired by now that you’ve seen it before even if this is your introduction to the Shadow. What’s missing is what would have set it apart: the interaction of the agents — the sense that they, not the Shadow, are the real heroes, the true forces of good. The implicit joke of the Shadow is that this unfathomable loner needs his operatives; without them, he can’t function — he’s a .45 without bullets. The Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood downplayed his Merry Men, too. Have movie stars gotten such fat heads that they won’t play heroes who need a little help from their friends?

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