The Shadow (Universal, 1994)

 

Margo: "Oh God. I dreamed."
Lamont: "So did I. What did you dream?"
Margo: "I was lying naked on a beach in the South Seas. The tide was coming up to my toes. The sun was moving down. My skin hot and cool at the same time. It was wonderful. What was yours?"
Lamont: "I dreamed I tore all the skin off my face and was somebody else underneath."
Margo: "You have problems."
Lamont: "I'm aware of that."
--Conversation in The Shadow, 1994 movie

It is Thursday night, July 31,1930... a hot summer night at a not terribly cheerful time in America. The time is 9:40 PM. Listeners tune to CBS Radio to hear the first appearance of The Shadow, starring James La Curto as The Shadow, in the Detective Story Hour. Street and Smith publishers sponsored this show (which lasted about a year), along with their magazine series The Shadow, A Detective Monthly. Several incarnations of the radio program would occur over the next few years, and over three hundred adventures of The Shadow were written between 1931 and 1949 by (mostly) Walter Gibson and a few other writers, all for The Shadow Magazine. A couple of dozen were reprinted some forty years ago, but the vast majority of the stories have never been reprinted in any form. You can actually read these stories here . They are, in my opinion, not nearly as good as the radio programs, but they are interesting to sample!

It's worth noting that, in the beginning, The Shadow was not a crime fighter. He was simply a narrator of mystery tales taken from the pages of Street & Smith's Detective Story Magazine. The present Shadow comes out of one of the later radio programs. To be precise, on September 26, 1937, The Shadow reappeared on radio with the voice of Orson Welles playing the part. Yes, Orson Welles! The Shadow was now a full-fledged character on radio, not just narrating and introducing stories. This radio Shadow was the first to have the hypnotic power to make himself invisible to those around him and he possessed mental telepathy to read minds.

It is also worth noting that the long-running radio program left The Shadow with a severe identity crisis. On the radio, The Shadow was Lamont Cranston, wealthy, young man-about-town. Actually, in the three hundred plus novels, it was claimed that The Shadow only took on the guise of Lamont Cranston when he thought that posing as the millionaire man about town could benefit his nighttime activities. The Shadow was in fact Kent Allard, an adventurer and pilot who crashed deep in the uncharted South American jungle shortly before The Shadow appeared in New York City. The Shadow revealed his true identity as Allard in a novel aptly titled "The Shadow Unmasks" in August 1937. Or was it merely a ruse to free Lamont Cranston from being unmasked as The Shadow? Only The Shadow knows...

The persona of The Shadow stays the same in both audio and printed versions after a brief period of development -- a crime fighter with the ability to "cloud men's minds"... whose true identity is never known. The film that we're discussing here combined elements from both the pulp and radio mediums. Alec Baldwin stars as Lamont Cranston, a murderous opium dealer reformed by a Tibetan mystic, who teaches him how to use his keen mental powers to manipulate others. As penance for his past misdeeds, Cranston masquerades as a somewhat carefree New York City playboy by day and secretly plays the avenging Shadow by night, staving off evildoers with a network of agents from street people to physicians and a cab-driving sidekick (Peter Boyle). A much greater challenge arrives when Cranston must fight Shiwan Khan (John Lone), a descendent of Genghis Khan, who has received training from the same Tibetan master who instructed Cranston. Shiwan plans to use an atomic weapon designed by the father of Margo Lane to take over New York and then, quite naturally, the world. At the same time, Cranston meets socialite Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller) and, although he's instantly in lust for her, quickly discovers that her psychic abilities make his secret identity impossible to hide.

There's nothing about the film that doesn't work, period. Alec Baldwin's perfect as both The Shadow and Lamont Cranston -- indeed he feels a lot like the animated Batman/Bruce Wayne character voiced by Kevin Conroy in Batman, Batman Beyond, and the current Justice League series. He's sexy and mysterious as Lamont Cranston, and downright spooky -- as he should be -- as The Shadow. The back story of both him and Shiwan Khan being taught by the same Tibetan mystic makes sense, as it gives them more or less equal powers. This version of The Shadow is set in 1930's New York City, superbly conceptualized by Jack Johnson of Pleasantville fame.

The bomb is the silliest aspect of the movie: it resembles a slightly smaller version of the Rover ball in The Prisoner series, as the damned thing goes everywhere in a scene near the end of the film. Technology is part of the fun here, since the atomic bomb is but one of many neat gadgets -- just take a gander at the use of pneumatic tubes! All over New York City, down buildings, into the basements of buildings, and between buildings, our hero has routed these pneumatic tubes which no one ever seems to notice. His helpers use them to send him messages that all funnel back to his desk. And do look at the amazing Glodbergian devices in Dr. Reinhardt Lane's lab!

Of course, The Shadow defeats Khan. Big surprise. And Lamont Cranston gets Margo Lane. Are you surprised? I'm not! The fun here, as it was in the radio series, is watching Good triumph over Evil. At it's very core, The Shadow harkens back to a much simpler age when one could reasonably expect that Good was different than Evil. The movie captures that feeling rather well. John Lone is an absolute delight as Shiwan Khan... a somewhat too obvious and somewhat darker reflection of The Shadow's supposed goodness. The art deco sets are quite terrific; the music is moody and fits the film. The visual scope of 1933 New York City is breathtaking.

These things make The Shadow worth seeing. Please note that the DVD release is in full screen only, not wide screen! And other than production notes, there are no goodies here. But the lack of other goodies shouldn't bother you, since it's the film that you're purchasing the DVD for, not the extra junk that's usually packed in. You get great acting, snappy dialogue, a reasonably well-written script, and decently done special effects. All in a film that doesn't drag or insult your intelligence!

[Cat Eldridge]