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The Shadow
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE SHADOW (1994)

Starring: Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Ian McKellen, Peter Boyle, Tim Curry

Written By: David Koepp Directed By: Russell Mulcahy

The Short Version

The Shadow is a radio play in pictures drawn for a pulp magazine; treat it as such.

The Shadow is very self-aware; notice how he laughs at himself?

Great casting.

The style is the substance.

The Shadow embraces its cheesiness; do the same, and you’ll have fun!


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

AGED CHEDDAR.

Fine, tasty comfort cheese, allowed to age over some years to make it all that much sharper and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.


Pairs Well With...

BRANDY OLD FASHIONED.

An old fashioned radio play put to the screen deserves an old fashioned drink.

“In three days, the entire world will hear my roar, and willingly fall subject to the lost empire of Shiwan Khan! That is a lovely tie, by the way. May I ask where you acquire it?”

“Brooks Brothers.”

“Is that midtown?”

“45th and Madison.  You are a barbarian.”

“Thank you.  We both are.”



The Shadow is perhaps the most venerable of all of the classic popular heroes to come from the early 20th Century.  Before Batman, before Superman, The Shadow knew what evil lurks in the hearts of men, delighting radio audiences and pulp fiction readers alike.  More than any other character, The Shadow is truly emblematic of the time at which he was born: the 1930s - the Golden Age of Radio, and the Golden Age of Pulp. 

Perhaps that is why audiences didn’t respond very well to The Shadow when it came out in theatres more than sixty years later in 1994.  Batman and Superman grew into their times, whereas The Shadow stopped aging just before this strange thing called television started getting people away from crowding around the radio. (He tried TV, briefly in its infancy, and failed.)   If anything, the world of the 21st Century belongs to Batman even more than did the time of his birth, and a modern viewer can step into the Caped Crusader’s realm and feel at home with no need for backstory.  For The Shadow, though, backstory is everything.  Setting is everything.  He needs his history – our history as his present – to be fully appreciated.  The Shadow was born into a world defined by Art Deco, and it fits him.  The style is the substance. 

Screenwriter David Koepp and Director Russell Mulcahy get that, and they’ve created the world of their film appropriately.  The stepped ceilings and whitewalled tires are just as much characters here as is The Shadow himself.  The look, the dialogue, everything is stylized.  Just as Raiders of the Lost Ark is best appreciated as an homage to serial cliffhangers, so too is The Shadow best appreciated as an homage to radio plays and pulp stories.

Even though you can see the people on the screen, The Shadow is a radio play.

Of course the sky looks like a painting that doesn’t move, and the streets more than a block back look like paintings, too.  How else do you expect a pulp magazine’s illustrations to look?

A lot of the audience in 1994 didn’t appreciate these two things, and came away wanting.  Once you appreciate them, though, you’ll be ready to have the kind of fun with this movie that the people making it did.

So now that you’ve had your history and Art Deco philosophy crash course, what can you expect to see?

We start off in Tibet, sometime shortly after The Great War.  (You’d probably call it World War I if the second war had happened yet, but that’s still a ways off, as is the Chinese occupation.  But anyway.)  American Lamont Cranston has come here to be a very, very bad boy.  Under the pseudonym Ying Ko, he’s become a ruthless opium kingpin and warlord; a slaughterer or peasants and a collector of wealth and women.  He’s let his own inner evil – his Shadow – get the best of him.  But there’s a holy man who sees potential in Cranston; a potential to turn his evil side to the cause of good, and a potential to unlock the hidden powers of Cranston’s mind.

A silent movie style placard explains away the next seven years; the holy man makes good on his promise, and teaches Cranston the power to cloud men’s minds.  (Consider it a combination of telepathy, telekinesis, and precision mesmerism, including the ability to trick others into not being able to see you.)  Thus may Cranston become The Shadow, he who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and use his powers to protect the innocent and punish those who would bring injustice to the world.  And where else do you send someone to fight injustice than the biggest hive of it there is?

Of course he goes to New York.

Not long after, we meet our villain, Shiwan Khan, who claims to be the last descendant of Genghis Khan (we’ll just ignore the fact that the historical Khan was so sexually prolific that it’s estimated that 1% of the population of the entire world – i.e. around 32 million people or so – can call him “ancestor”), and whose goal is to finish the great man’s job and conquer the whole planet.  For this, he will need an atomic bomb, which in the 1930s can be a little hard to come by, but there’s this absent-minded scientist with a really hot daughter… and so it goes.

As noted before, what follows plays very much like a radio drama of old.  People announce what they’re thinking.  The deus ex machina runs precisely on cue.  Spoken word advertisements are placed right in the middle of dialogue.  (The exchange up top, for example.)  Even when not throwing in product placements, much of the dialogue sounds like it’s being read straight into a standing microphone instead of being acted across a set.  Logic is off on holiday somewhere, probably with all of the military people you’d expect to actually be guarding an atomic bomb lab.  (In the movie, all you get are two oafs whose primary interest involves arguing whether or not to have hamburgers for dinner.  And don’t ask why Genghis Khan’s sarcophagus is inscribed with Latin.)  To the modern eye expecting modern storytelling, it’s cheesy.  But to someone who appreciates the history of The Shadow and understands the tribute being paid, it’s absolutely brilliant.  The Shadow embraces its heritage, and its cheese.

Alec Baldwin (looking just a bit more svelte than he does on “30 Rock”) is an excellent choice to play Lamont Cranston.  His natural self assurance fits intellectual rich boy Cranston to the letter, as does his inherent air of formality even when he’s being humorous or casual.  (Rich boy, yes; frat boy, no.  Tony Stark he ain’t.)  His muted, gravelly voice also lends itself well to The Shadow, and to someone who knows that The Shadow lurks within himself.  It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine better casting.

John Lone, meanwhile, takes Shiwan Khan over the top, and relishes his role as an old school villain.  There’s no subtlety here, nor does there need to be.  He’s a nut with a bit of a crush on the hero who can make people do whatever he wants and who’s out to steal an atomic bomb; why play it for less?

Penelope Ann Miller, meanwhile, nails her role as Margo Lane (yes, maybe related to Lois; the rights aren’t owned by the same people, but it’s been hinted anyway), 1930s radio dame.  A lot of people think that female leads of this period always have to fall into the mode of femme fatale, but that’s not Margo Lane and never was.  Miller gets that, and so doesn’t try to be Lauren Bacall.  She also doesn’t try to force a modern independent woman characterization onto the part, either.  In the case of Penelope Ann Miller, it’s just as much what she doesn’t do as what she does do that makes her perfect for the role.

Ian McKellen is delightful as her father, a scientist who is so absent-minded that he can’t tell red from green and yet still brilliant enough to design an atomic bomb.  Peter Boyle, Tim Curry, and Jonathan Winters round out the fun, with a quick shout out to perennial favorite James Hong for a brief showing at the start of the film.  There really isn’t a single wrong note hit by any member of the cast; each steps into his or her role wonderfully.

They’re all helped by a script that can be well described as snappy.  David Koepp’s screenplay is just as sharp on the rapid fire exchanges as it is on the droll one-liners (and also delivers some very nice reference cues to the classic Shadow even though he’s surely aware that most of the audience will never catch them).  He writes a script for the early days of Franklin Roosevelt, when the words on the page were all that kept the show going; there were no visual effects to help cover up an awkward moment.  Once again, that era’s spirit is embraced, even though Koepp knows that he will in fact have visuals for backup.

And those visuals are excellently realized.  As noted earlier, the backdrops often recall a sense of being illustrated for a pulp magazine, though they never cross a line into cheapness.  The foregrounds, though, are lush, taking full advantage of the Art Deco period with its rich colors (especially the reds) and wonderful embellishments.  And as you might well expect from a movie whose primary character is identified by his Shadow, both metaphorical and real, excellent attention is paid to the lighting, given particular showcase during the close quarters fighting in the good scientist’s lab, though well apparent at all times. 

This isn’t to say that all of the visual effects are perfect, mind – try not to notice the obvious bluescreening when somebody falls off a building – but this is a radio play, after all.

And that, in the end, is the key to enjoying this movie.  The Shadow as a film is never going to truly take the place or ever completely replicate the atmosphere of gathering around the radio and listening to Orson Welles or those who followed narrate the cackling hero’s adventures, but as a tribute, it hits the mark dead center.  Instead of taking a character very much married to his time and trying to force him onto ours, the filmmakers have taken their art to his.  And yet as they do this honor, they also know how cheesily it will play to modern eyes, and they have fun with that, too.  Rarely does one see a major budget movie so self-aware as The Shadow without being self conscious.  It takes the time to laugh at itself, even as it invites us to sit for a while and be entertained by a fantastical tale of improbable adventure.

The style is the substance.

Bottom line, The Shadow knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and The Shadow knows how to have fun with it, old school style.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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