Junkfood Cinema: The Shadow

By  · Published on April 9th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema. Every week Brian Salisbury normally force-feeds you hot spoon-fulls of hot garbage from his personal celluloid landfill, but today I’m stepping in to blast your eyeballs and clog your arteries. These stinkers may have fallen short of technically proficient from the time their scripts were greenlit, but they nevertheless occupy a special, greasy part of our hearts. To make matters worse, we also provide a themed suggestion as to the tastebud-pleasing, artery-clogging snack item you should be cramming into your gullet as you watch the flick. Today’s film is not for the faint of heart, nor indeed for the faint of mind. Today’s film…is The Shadow.

The Shadow is based on famous character that originally ran as a radio program from 1931 to 1955 … let me repeat that for one second. It ran from 1930 to 1955. That’s a steady stream of stories for some 25 years. Amazing, right? Although he originally appeared as a narrator for Detective Story Hour, The Blue Coal Radio Revue, and oddly enough, Love Story Hour, The Shadow came into his own in 1937 when he was given a show of his own, and voiced by a young and ambitious Orson Welles for one full year. The show continued without Welles, having several characters over the years, and branched into pulp magazine novels, television, comic books, and even four feature films from 1937 to 1946. But in 1994, a new version of The Shadow appeared, with Alec Baldwin at the helm. This was meant to catapult him into superstardom, which he’d toyed with on films like The Hunt for Red October and Miami Blues, but megastardom eluded him like … a shadow.

What Makes It Bad?

The camp factor. There’s an undercurrent of sinisterosity (another word I’m coining) in the original The Shadow radio serials, where Lamont Cranston really wreaks havoc in the lives of criminals. He drives plenty of them mad by talking to them without being there, making them think they’ve gone insane. There’s a complete recreation of this in The Shadow, where Tim Curry blasts away at the shadows with a Tommy gun, going completely bonkers in the process. Tim Curry is an amazing actor, I’ll grant you that. But his drooling, bumbling Farley Claymore in this film drove me nuts. He’s buffoonerific, and not in a good way. He becomes an agent of Shiwan Khan, but almost as a court jester. Khan is the real baddie here, although why he would ever agree to work with this nitwit is beyond me. There had to be better people to choose from. Claymore is also supposed to be working on the world’s first atomic bomb for the War Department as well, and how he got that job I’ll never know.

This was also Sir Ian McKellen’s first notable film role as well, having played Death in The Last Action Hero opposite Arnold Schwazenegger just the year before. Although he wouldn’t really appear on movie moviegoer’s mental maps until he played Frankenstein director James Whale in Gods and Monsters in 1998, I urge you to go back and watch him here in The Shadow. He’s terrible! And I mean terrible on a Gandalf-esque scale. Granted, he isn’t given much to work with, but he stumbles through this film like he’s hypnotized. Oh, wait. He actually is hypnotized through most of this movie. But still, it’s painful to watch. Thankfully, you know he has a lot better work ahead of him, and I’m just glad beyond belief that this wasn’t his swan song. Imagine closing out an entire career with a performance like this. He’s also a fairly odd choice for the role, coming off fairly meaty history in Shakespeare roles and BBC television. Surely there were some better choices for this role.

Likewise is the shrew-like nagging that Penelope Ann Miller brings to the role as The Shadow’s love interest, Margo Lane. In the radio dramas, Lane was The Shadow’s partner in crime-solving, but here the producers thought it would be fitting to give her mental powers. This completely blows any sort of tension over who The Shadow is between Cranston and Lane, because she figures it out pretty quickly. Where’s the whole Superman/Clark Kent/Lois Lane triangle love? That dynamic worked because of the entire “Will she find out?” dynamic, and that would have worked perfectly in this film, especially if they were gunning for a sequel. Instead Margo finds this out in short order, dreamily flitting through one of his dark and disturbing dreams where he relives the nightmarish life he used to lead as an opium druglord. “You’re not supposed to be here” he says to her in the dream, and that’s how I feel about her entire role in the film. Another actress probably could have nailed this … like Jennifer Connelly. She really looks good in period 1930s pieces like The Rocketeer and Dark City, so why not The Shadow? Miller smiles and utterly fails at charming her way through this film, where Connelly could have given us someone to care about.

Crime solving. Where is it? Sherlock Holmes battles a nefarious master of crime in the recent movie of the same name, and that’s exactly what The Shadow’s bread and butter was all through the radio dramas and the pulp magazines. But in this film, there isn’t a lot of crime solving going on. There’s a master plan at work, headed up by an evil mastermind, sure, but The Shadow doesn’t really spend much time using his detective skills. The fact is that there’s a telepath on a scale much larger than Cranston’s at work in New York City, and he doesn’t even realize it. That probably says more about Shiwan Khan’s skill than the lack of Cranston’s, but it still makes you wonder how he’s been able to operate under his nose for quite some time. They also both spent time under the tutelage of the same master, so you think there’d be some kind of mental “Oh, hi there” going off in Cranston’s brain. Perhaps it’s the fact that he spends a lot of his free time boozing it up as his alter ego, and dating women like Lane. Blurgh.

Is this nitpicking? Hell yes it’s nitpicking, because I’ve seriously had to think of things I don’t like about this movie. I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and the poster emblazoned one of my walls when I was in college, and when you love a bad movie so much, it’s hard to remember what’s bad about it. Sure, Khan’s henchmen are all idiots, Peter Boyle’s dimwitted cabbie is slightly annoying, and I won’t get started again about the irritability that Penelope Ann Miller brings to the screen, but you sort of ignore these things when you love something, am I right? The fact that I’m watching this again right now as I write this, knowing all the lines in advance, prove that you can pull this off.

Why I Love It!

I’m a complete sucker for old-time radio junk. Those people churned out stories constantly, in some cases several times a week, and came up with extremely novel and clever ways to keep a plotline running forever. Give me a road trip and satellite radio tuned to the “Classic Radio Shows” channel, and I’m in heaven. Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, Jack Benny, The Whisperer, The Whistler … these are the amazing characters of yesteryear that just don’t exist anymore. Amazingly, when the gave Lamont Cranston and the story of The Shadow a reboot in 1994, they did it right. It wasn’t all jazzed up with ridiculosity (a word I want to stake a claim on), and they nailed what was right about the guy. This was a character so iconic that he helped spawn The Whistler, Batman, The Green Hornet, and a slew of others. Plus he had the ability to cloud men’s minds, making him one of the first heroes with an actual superpower, and not some techno-gadget that did all the work for him.

In the radio series, Lamont Cranston was a wealthy playboy, who ambiguously gained the power to cloud minds while traveling through Asia. Radio drama were lucky enough to be able to explain a backstory like that with just a few words, but in the movies you have to flesh that out with visuals that make an impact. With the movie, they decided to overhaul Cranston completely, and turned him into disaffected ex-soldier with a much darker background. He’s made a fortune dealing in opium in Tibet, and is a vicious warlord. There’s a single scene where he’s hacking and slashing his way through enemy soldiers, bathed in blood. It’s oddly disjointed, because it’s the practically the bloodiest scene in the film, but it lets you know that this isn’t going to be your grandfather’s Shadow.

Cranston, known as Ying Ko in Tibet, eventually gets taken in by The Tulku, a mystic man who aims to turn him into a force for good. And who better for the task since he knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Cranston resists, fights with a mentally controlled, anthropomorphic living dagger called the Phurba, and eventually succumbs. He trains with the Tulku for seven years, learning how to hone his abilities and make brains cloudy with telepathy, erasing any trace he’s around them, except for his shadow, which is something he’ll never be able to hide. He then takes his new skills, and his remaining drug fortune, to New York City where he wages war against the criminal underbelly, hiding in the shadows and building a network of contacts in the process. Contacts that wear a special ring, and know the password response to “The sun is shining.” Which is, “But the ice is slippery.”

The film nails radio bits like this perfectly (making me want my own The Shadow ring in the process), and gives us the best image of The Shadow to date. When he’s in his guise as the character, he looks nothing like Lamont Cranston. He’s got a bigger nose and beadier eyes, which are projected mentally by Cranston. In fact, he looks a lot more like Daniel Baldwin than Alec Baldwin during these moments. He also sports a black trench coat with a huge, red-lined, billowing cloak that would make Batman jealous, wears a large slouch hat, covers the lower half of his face with a red scarf, and sports twin automatic pistols .45s in underarm holsters. In other words, he’s an armed badass with mental powers. When he eventually squares off against Shiwan Khan, a baddie from the radio days and a descendant of Genghis Khan, the two of them engage in an epic battle of willpower. Khan much more skilled than Cranston in the brain arena, and he’s hypnotized an army of henchmen and hidden an entire high-rise building from sight in the middle of New York City. Pretty impressive stuff from Khan, where Cranston rarely uses the ability to hypnotize people. Even so, The Shadow’s eerie laugh that echoes around the screen when he’s confronting a bad guy is sheer perfection.

And how can I talk about this movie without mentioning Alec Baldwin? He owns this role, pairing both the dark and sinister actions of The Shadow with the flip, gadabout town attitude of Lamont Cranston. He’s got a definite sense of humor throughout the film as Cranston, but he’s completely deadpan and as serious as a heart attack as The Shadow. They’ve peppered the film with other characters from the series, namely the aforementioned Peter Boyle as Moe Shrevnitz and Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Lane, but this film is carried on the back of Baldwin’s performance, with some kudos to Jonathan Winters’ portrayal of Police Chief Wainwright Barth as well. I would have liked to have seen more of his training in Tibet, but with only two hours you have to get the Shadow in New York pretty quickly to establish him there, so I get it. There’s a whole world he already has established by the time the movie takes us to New York, and they did such a good job with it that I want to see that too. Who else works within his vast network of informants and assistants? Only The Shadow knows.

Sadly, the film was meant to be a summer blockbuster from Highlander director Russell Mulcahy for Universal in 1994, but it flopped. The budget was $40 million, and it only pulled in 48, killing the plans for a sequel. Still, when this old school radio drama catapulted off of the pulp pages and onto the screens of the multiplex, it never left my imagination. And yes, I even bought some of the toys from The Shadow toyline … which were bargain-binned quickly at 80% off. Score! There’s supposedly a new version in the works with Sam Raimi producing. Not surprising considering the fact that Darkman looks a lot like The Shadow.

Junkfood Pairing: Corn Dogs.

Corn Dogs. Delicious meat inside, crusted with a golden, thick, breaded shell. That’s what you need when you watch The Shadow. It’s a classic American food, just like The Shadow is an American original, and it’s deep fried in fat … just like America. You have to work to get to the good stuff, ignoring the cholesterol-clogging qualities of the outer shell, but once you get inside there’s a juicy hot dog on a stick waiting for you. You can attempt to dress up that shell with fancy mustards, or in this case you should really use some sort of sweet and sour sauce as a nod to The Shadow’s Asian origins, but you really want to power through that and get to the goodness of processed sausage.