The Shadow (1994)

Superhero movies are now so ubiquitous it’s impossible to talk about contemporary popular cinema without mentioning them. Although Superman (1978) had been a big hit, it didn’t inspire a raft of rival comic book adaptations, perhaps because it was presumed no other property could rival it. The arrival of such fare as the stuff of franchise blockbusters had to wait for the success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Burton’s film, with its bold visual and conceptual approach that completely threw off the colourful and jokey associations of the 1960s TV series, encouraged other studios and filmmakers to adapt or even invent comic book heroes ripe for the big screen in swaggering productions, including Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990), Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer (1991), and Simon Wincer’s The Phantom (1996). Some of these were fun and a few successful, but today when they’re remembered at all it’s usually as an awkward adolescent phase for the comic book movie, one that would be obliged to evolve after Joel Schumacher foiled the Batman series. Russell Mulcahy’s The Shadow is a work most clearly under the spell of Burton’s film, with a few dashes of the Indiana Jones series’ retro class worked in as well.

The Shadow is a character with a vital place in comic book history, laying down a blueprint mimicked by Batman in particular, as a playboy fighting crime and nefarious international villains. The Shadow presented a creation similar to the likes the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, and Judex, venturesome crime fighters with secret identities and formidable skills, and imbued them with more fantastical, Weird Fiction-influenced abilities, pointing the way for the pulp hero’s evolution into superhero. The character had an unstable genesis, created initially as a narrator figure for radio adaptations of Detective Story Magazine’s stories, and then developed into a proper character for a pulp novella penned by Walter B. Gibson under the name Maxwell Grant. The Shadow was characterised as merely a tough and canny fighter in the early books, but in the famous radio show and in comics he became a man accomplished in mystic arts. The character didn’t even have a certain name: in the books he was Kent Allard and occasionally used the alias Lamont Cranston, but the comic and radio character only used the second name. Orson Welles famously voiced the character for a time on the radio show. When Universal turned to the property to concoct a comic book blockbuster, screenwriter David Koepp took the radio and comic character as the basic template. 

Australian director Russell Mulcahy, who had scored a hit a few years earlier with the hyper-energetic Highlander (1986) after making a name in music videos and then the raucous Oz-Gothic horror film Razorback (1984), took the director’s chair. Alec Baldwin, failing to gain box office traction as his tumultuous marriage to Kim Basinger overshadowed his star moment, and starlet du jour Penelope Ann Miller, landed the lead roles as Cranston and his psychic lady love, Margo Lane. A prologue depicts Cranston lording over the wastes of Tibet in the mid-1920s, having set himself up as a warlord and drug kingpin using the name Yin-ko. His men drag in rival Li Peng (James Hong), who tries to escape his foe’s clutches by taking one of his advisors as hostage, only for Cranston to order both men shot. Cranston is soon kidnapped in turn from his fortress by some mysterious men who prove to be emissaries of a Buddhist priest and mystic master known as the Tulku (Brady Tsurutani). The Tulku proposes to redeem and transform Cranston into a warrior for good by developing his latent psychic gifts and forcing him to confront his demons, a process that will then bless him with the ability to see into other people’s guilty and damaged psyches. 

Seven years later, Cranston has reinvented himself as The Shadow in New York. He rescues scientist and academic Dr Roy Tam (Sab Shimono) from some gangsters, using his uncanny abilities to assault and terrify the hoods, and adds Tam to his army of helpers, all of them people whose life he’s saved. He relies particularly on steadfast cabbie Moe Shrevnitz (Peter Boyle). Cranston soon finds himself up against a great enemy in the form of Shiwan Khan (John Lone), another student of the Tulku, but one whose psychopathic megalomania as a descendent of Genghis Khan proved too much even for the great master to corral. Shiwan Khan admires Cranston and wants him to join his mission to take over the world, a plot he plans to leverage by combining his control of the arcane ore bronzium, stuff “the ancient Chinese believed the universe was made from” which when combined with certain modern technologies can be forged into a type of nuclear weapon. Absent-minded, colour-blind scientist Dr Reinhart Lane (Ian McKellen) is developing one of the devices Shiwan Khan needs, and Lane’s colleague Farley Claymore (Tim Curry) has made another; Claymore gleefully signs up to aid the would-be conqueror whilst Lane falls under his mesmeric influence. Cranston meets Lane’s daughter Margo whilst dining with his uncle, police commissioner Wainwright Barth (Jonathan Winters) in a ritzy nightclub called the Cobalt Club. Cranston discovers Margo has her own powerful psychic gifts; Cranston finds himself naked, mentally speaking, before her. 

The Shadow failed to make much impact upon release in 1994 with very ordinary box office, ending Mulcahy’s run as a director of big-budget movies. I’ve returned to it every few years or so, half expecting to find it’s become some the stuff of cult classics, an atoll of colourful, old-school analogue verve and wit to strongly contrast the sardines-in-a-can aesthetic of the current genre. But The Shadow is still not quite weird enough, not quite rich enough. Today it seems rather a fun relic, in part as product of a time when Hollywood's wares took greater pride in their ability to serve up production values as the essence of their dominant stature, whereas today editors and special effects teams rule the roost and scarcely seem to notice such paraphernalia. The Shadow bears a close resemblance to some more successful, subsequent films, particularly Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) with its historical approach to a storied superhero, and Doctor Strange (2016), which adapted the Jack Kirby comic creation explicitly inspired by The Shadow. The Shadow is greatly preferable as a film to both, in part because Mulcahy and Koepp aren’t as determined to be broadly, blandly acceptable as the Marvel imprimatur, and their work feels far more authentic in annexing the great pulp tradition the material springs from.

The Shadow was a fantasy figuration appropriate for the moment of his creation, a time defined by the tumultuous evocations of liquid mental states found in surrealism on one hard and the hard, rectilinear forms of art deco on the other. Mulcahy’s visuals sometimes manage to attune themselves to this as a warrior of dreams and unseen planes battles evil in the vertiginous modern realm of New York. The things that his film gets right are right indeed. Baldwin’s Shadow, swathed in black and trims of red, with jutting hat and swirling cape, and hawkish, psychically distorted visage peeking over muffling scarf, perfectly recreates the original comic illustrations. Wielding twin .45s gleaming deadly silver, he’s first seen as a blur of motion surging out of the mist to swat hoodlums in the face before dissolving into ether again, his mocking laughter echoing from the dark. In one great moment, he’s caught as an eerie shadow cast on a wall by a villain’s torch, and seems to melt out of the brickwork after being pinioned by crossbow arrows. Miller, with blonde marcelled hair that looks like a spill of molten gold, lithe frame wrapped in silver silk, looks like she stepped straight out of a Lempicka,  whether trading quips and desirous gazes with Baldwin or lounging about with an apple red as her lips like Eve gone flapper. Jerry Goldsmith's score brings all the grandeur you could ask for. Mulcahy’s camera records in lingering and loving movements the glitzy sets and lush costume designs and complex model work, and on occasions perhaps treads closer to proud impresario showing off his wares than a director who really knows what to do with them. 

Those are flaws Burton’s Batman also evinces, but Mulcahy has no auteurist imprint to bring, not like Burton’s genuine fascination with the way even the usually straight-laced superhero fantasy could feed his own obsession with diseased creations. Fortunately, whilst The Shadow is a work proud of its big-budget heft and evocation of another era’s trashy delights, it also betrays an authentic cineaste’s love of that epoch, a desire to converse in its argot. Mulcahy has a ball diving into a period realm where a Fritz Lang-esque secret organisation communicates via a web of pneumatic tubes around New York, his camera tracking capsules whizzing along the tube system. Mulcahy kicks off the movie off with a vision of Cranston’s decadent lifestyle in Tibet with a coterie of opium-addled courtiers, floozies and musclemen all offered up for his pansexual entertainment. Shiwan Khan’s first appearance, emerging from the silver coffin of his great ancestor in a museum, is staged as a tip of the hat to both Karl Freund’s The Mummy and Charles Brabin’s The Mask of Fu Manchu (both 1932). Mulcahy’s video clip roots are evident as he offers up plush visions of jazz-age class with banks of windows filled with fluttering curtains. Lone’s costuming blends into gleaming sprawls of decorated marble. Rings of fire and liquid shadows leap out of the silent cinema of FW Murnau and Paul Leni. The finale pays tribute to Welles’ film The Lady From Shanghai (1946) with a psychic duel staged in a hall of mirrors. 

The trouble is that The Shadow never works out how to capitalise on all the wonderful things it has on tap. Mulcahy has great talents as a fashioner of flashy visuals, but little gift for nuance in drama. The Shadow lacks the edge of Ozploitation punkishness he brought to the likes of Highlander and its sequel, nor their raw spectacle, which could be a good thing depending on your point of view. Mulcahy compensates by offering a lot of energetic camerawork, but it too often feels detached from what the scant story is trying to accomplish. The Shadow feels at once slick and heavy-footed, beautiful in a tony way that never congeals into a work of rollicking style. Mulcahy constantly betrays a lack of certainty when to quit, overdoing or constantly doubling up his flourishes, like repeated scenes of enemies wheeling about wildly firing off Tommy guns, the locks on the silver coffin snapping open and shut, and laborious moments of black humour in which characters are urged to self-destruction by Shiwan Khan, as when he urges a rude sailor to jump off the top of the Empire State Building. The action is decorated here and there with flourishes of dated digital effects, particularly the Phurba, a freaky, flying, self-aware dagger used by the Tulku to shake Cranston up and then wielded by Shiwan Khan: it looks like it strayed in from a mid-‘90s TV series, something like Relic Hunter or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.

Koepp would go on to write Sam Raimi's Spider-Man (2002), and that film’s strength in weaving romance in with adventure was surely part of the reason why it's clearly now the moment the superhero film arrived as the premier cash crop of twenty-first century Hollywood. By comparison, his script here feels flimsy, the plot almost pathetically simple and occasionally self-sabotaging in terms of pace and stakes. Arguably that might help make it authentically pulp-like, but it still badly lacks complication and well-designed action scenes. Cranston and Margo are two potentially fascinating characters barely allowed time to resolve in their own vehicle. Nowhere near enough space is given to working up a strong romantic relationship between the duo, and the film remains peculiarly confused about Cranston’s backstory. When Margo infiltrates Cranston’s mind she gains a vision of him leading terrible raid swathed in Chinese-style metal armour, and I’m still not entirely sure if this is supposed to be a memory of his recent days as a warlord – in which case, why the armour? – or some past life. There’s also a very faint hint Cranston’s days fighting in World War I unhinged him, but this isn’t explored at all. 

The result leaves Baldwin looking and sounding the part but never becoming a truly engaging protagonist, his conversion to good and his struggles with his evil past taken as a given but never felt, much like his attempts to generate chemistry with Miller. The film also casts excellent actors like McKellen, caught just before Richard III (1995) would properly reinvigorate his movie career, Curry, Winters, Shimono, Boyle, and Andre Gregory, only to give them very little to do. The finale makes a joke out of the fact that Cranston’s two loyal sidekicks are stuck out on the pavement standing around, but this doesn’t cover up the fact that the script can’t think of anything else for them to do, at least not until Miller and McKellen have to chase around the atomic bomb like a giant bowling ball. Lone at least relishes his role, his Shiwan Khan rolling up and flicking out his lines with the same lilt of sensuous self-indulgence with which he caresses Miller’s bare, pale back when she’s under his mesmeric power. He brings just enough outsized, campy flash to the role, to partly cover up the fact he’s yet another supervillain who wastes time and great power. 

There is a great late scene depicting Shiwan Khan’s amusingly trenchant fate after being left powerless by his enemy, and Mulcahy stages one excellent set-piece of derring-do as Cranston is locked inside a pressure sphere by Claymore, forcing him to try and stay alive by sucking in air through bullet holes in the side whilst Margo speeds to his rescue. This really could have strayed out of a classic serial, but still feels a shade underdeveloped. Another memorable vision arrives in a scene in which Cranston realises Shiwan Khan has mesmerised an entire city into seeing a vacant lot where a huge art deco hotel stands, allowing him to hide in downtown Manhattan (an idea pinched for Paul McGuigan’s Push, 2009). The Shadow comes so close to being the film I want it to be it’s a more painful experience than watching a less ambitious work. And yet, in spite of its many problems, The Shadow is still a doggedly watchable, likeable film, one that manages to be genuinely dreamy and intoxicating in flashes, as an anthem for the pleasures to be found in a dusty annex of pop culture. Dare I say it, this begs for a truly galvanising creative hand to perhaps revisit and reinvigorate it today. 

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