Gabby: We channel our otherworldly powers whilst discussing…
Jeremy: The Shadow. Who knows what need for cultural sensitivity training lurks in the hearts of men?
Gabby: So that was fun!
Brett: Yeah, this movie is always fun. It’s just not perfect. It might even be objectively bad. I can’t be objective about it though.
Jeremy: Neither can I.
Gabby: I would watch it again.
Jeremy: Before we go further, let’s introduce this latest round of movies. We’re each picking a film we want to defend that’s inspired by classic works of pulp/weird fiction. We’re starting with Brett’s pick, The Shadow. This movie’s been on our radar since we first started talking about doing these retrospectives. Not that it matters who picks a movie, but I assumed the two of us (both huge Shadow fans) were going to have to rock-paper-scissors for this one. Surprisingly, there was another movie I wanted to do more.
So let’s start at the beggining: when did everyone first see The Shadow?
Gabby: This was my first experience.
Brett: I started with the radio show, and then read some of the stories, the comics and movies came last for me. The Shadow was my favorite radio show as a kid. So of course I was there on opening night to see this movie, and I mostly enjoyed it.
Jeremy: My history with The Shadow is surprisingly personal. This movie came out in July 1994, which was the last month before me and my family moved to a different state. I was fifteen and had come out of my shell over the last school year – so I was taking the whole thing about as well as you would expect. Everything was already in boxes and we spent that July in a furnished apartment. My only sibling was off at college. So with nothing much to do, my parents were cool and let me practically live with my friends until we left town.
I bounced from house to house. While staying with my best friend at the time, the two of us decided to see The Shadow on a whim (neither of us had heard of the character before). The poster looked cool and we were fifteen. Of course we were down for a superhero movie.
We both loved it (me in particular). Part of the merchandising push for this movie was re-releasing episodes of the radio show. I picked up one of those sets a few days later. Pretty sure it was around 20 episodes. I remember listening to Orson Welles as The Shadow on my Walkman during the drive to a new home in a new state. I kept tracking down episodes and listening to them alone in my bedroom that autumn while coming out of my new shell.
I still enjoy the movie, but part of that fondness no doubt comes from it taking me back to a bittersweet time.
Brett: My history goes back further. When I was a little, little kid, like 3, there was a station that played old radio shows.
So I listened to a bunch of stuff, The Shadow was one of the only things they played that wasn’t a comedy. So The Shadow was the one badass I listened to late at night when I wasn’t sleeping. We got some tapes of episodes when I was about 12 or so. 8 tapes, 16 episodes, very cool stuff. There was a podcast that put, like, 50 episodes out as a podcast.
I got some reprints of the stories in little collected books that were probably printed in the ’70s at my middle school library. It should go without saying that I was A PIMP in school. Had to beat the babes off with a stick.
What I liked about The Shadow, what I have always liked, is that mysticism is allowed to be the answer. You don’t get that Hardy Boys nonsense where the solution is so goofy and convoluted that ghosts would be more sensible.
This movie is a little more comic book and a little less pulp story, but the baddie is still allowed to be an Eastern mystic, and they allow for the power of the atomic bomb. It straddles both worlds that The Shadow existed in.
Gabby: Although, I have had little in the way of comparison as to interpretation, I did pick up upon the interesting mix of magic and superpowers.
Jeremy: Yeah, that’s where the character from the pulps and the radio show diverge, to my knowledge. We’ll talk about the history of The Shadow in a moment.
Gabby: I think a good thing would actually be to discuss some of those things it aims to be and how successful those are.
Jeremy: It has the same basic flaw as most ’90s popcorn movies: it can’t decide what it wants to be. It tries to please everyone.
Brett: It’s tone is too mushy. It wants to be a comic book and a pulp story and a mystery and an adventure and it wants to be the pure version of all of those instead of a mixture. However, that does mean the individual scenes taken on their own are generally fine. It’s a little clunky, but it gets to where you want to go.
Jeremy: Agreed. I like each element of this story – except the goddamned shrieking face knife – but the pieces don’t always fit together. The problem is this: every time screenwriter David Koepp commits to an earnest idea, he hesitates and instead goes for a joke. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of trying to convince your boss about something at work, but you keep saying things like, “I don’t know – I could be wrong, but…”
I like Koepp’s writing, though. The guy knows banter, and I live for banter. And he does an admirable job of taking the different versions of The Shadow from different mediums and combining them together.
Briefly, the origin of The Shadow began on the radio in 1930 – though the character was only the narrator of a crime anthology show. (Think the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt.)
The character became so popular that he got his own pulp series the next year, which ran until 1949. The look of the character matches what we see in the movie, and he’s a bit like Batman – a master detective who’s trained to peak mental and physical condition. He’s also a master of stealth and disguises. In fact, Lamont Cranston is just one of his aliases in the pulps. The Shadow got an origin story a couple of years in, but it was never that important. These are stories about a superhero fighting bad guys for fighting bad guys’ sake.
In 1937, the character goes back to radio with his own half-hour show. The way they get him to work over the airwaves is pretty brilliant. This version of the character has the ability to “cloud men’s mind” so no one can see him. Obviously, an invisible man plays beautifully on radio. It’s here that Margo Lane is introduced. And this character actually is Lamont Cranston, a young playboy who fights crime around living the high life with a beautiful companion. For a lot of fans of the pulps, this was a safe, water-downed version of the character.
I’m not sure there’s another superhero this well-known that doesn’t have a clear character bible. Whether it’s Adam West or Michael Keaton or Christian Bale, Batman is always Batman. It’s the tone that changes. Based on the medium, The Shadow is barely the same character. For my money, this hybrid version of The Shadow is the best interpretation so far. We get some of the street-level grittiness and the supernatural powers. And despite the goddamned shrieking face knife, the origin story works for me.
Brett: So how many of us have read the stories, listened to the radio show or read the comics? Or saw the two movies made in the ’30s?
I haven’t read all the pulp stories, or read many of the comics, but I have read enough to know what we’re dealing with. The stories were a little more “mystery around every corner” while the radio show was just a detective show that allowed supernatural explanations. The two movies I have from the ’30s are basically short serials. They’re on that level of quality and storytelling style.
Gabby: I watched one of the ’30s movies of The Shadow, after seeing this version, and I was not really a fan. What is your favourite story of The Shadow?
Brett: It’s honestly been so long since I read any. There is a radio episode that sticks with me, though. The Thing in the Cage has a creepy as all fuck ending.
Gabby: So racism… Is that reoccurring in this thing? The Asain stereotyping here is quite extreme in the first section of the movie. Where they use China as a dark and mysterious land full of evil magics and men with a lust for power.
Brett: There was a TON of Yellow Peril stuff in pulp before Nazis took over at the baddie du jour. It’s not just The Shadow, the mysterious East was both a place where all the really cool stuff came from and all the clever villains. Racism is always going to be part of the deal, because these were disreputable populist stories and could do disreputable populist stuff.
Jeremy: These stories are of their time. Nothing I’ve read in any of the pulps is a direct attack on any race or culture. That’s not an excuse for the horribly outdated things found in these stories. If you’ve read or listened to a Shadow story that contradicts that statement, let us know. We’re all mature enough here to appreciate a story from the past while acknowledging the problems of the past.
With that in mind, let’s get this out of the way: how does Shiwan Khan play for everyone? Going only by this movie, do you find him or his henchmen offensive?
Brett: I probably should find it more offensive than I do. I think because it’s set in a historical place, and that John Lone really doesn’t play up to Yellow Peril stereotypes, I tend to forgive it. He’s not trying to get Margo hooked on opium so he can sell her to white slavers while bringing down the decadent West, I sort of look past a lot of it. His henchmen don’t play a large enough part either. We rarely really see them.
I am a white guy, though. I try, but, you know… white American.
Jeremy: I get that. You and I are living life on the easiest difficulty setting. That’s right where I am with these characters, as well. For both Khan and Dr. Tam, who The Shadow recruits at the beginning of the movie, that’s where they’re from, not who they are. Does that make sense?
Brett: Yes. Khan’s reasons are very much universal. He wants power and wealth. He might as wells stroke a white cat and be all “You have interfered for the last time, Yin Ko.”
Gabby: I found some of it offensive and some of it not so much. I think Khan is, as you both say, played in a way that makes him more than a typical villain with wishes of grand power.
I think it was more the way they introduced ‘the Orient’ in the film, that struck me as offensive, but then I think they manage to get away with that and use the Eastern magic as an influence on the character and the villains. Like you said Jeremy, it is the place they are from and not why they are evil.
Jeremy: Koepp giving Cranston a darker backstory helps. Both men committed the same atrocities and were given the same opportunity to redeem themselves. This is one of the few times I enjoy the “We’re not so different, you and I…” cliché.
And I dig the Redemption Work Study program that Cranston and Khan go through. Cranston is not chosen as a white savior or anything. He’s chosen because he’s a monster with an ounce of good left in him. It’s never explicitly said, but I assume there are “Shadows” all over the world doing what Cranston does.
Obviously, having a Nazi bad guy or something would’ve gone down easier. But this movie weighed the source material, considered these concerns, and tried to do something about them. It’s a step – probably too a small step – in the right direction.
Gabby: I like the trope of mirroring the villain and the hero, that is always interesting. I suppose linking the villain to Genghis Khan helped. Having a real historical figure, one that became one of the most feared conquerors, makes it seem not a racist fear it is tapping into, but a fear of dead legends coming back to haunt us. Vlad the Impaler is another figure like this, for instance.
Brett: That’s back to the pulp stories. Shiwan Khan was featured in at least two stories. I don’t remember Shiwan Khan having psychic powers.
Jeremy: Vlad the Impaler would’ve been wicked awesome.
Brett: I also don’t think the romantic dynamic worked, mostly because Baldwin and Miller kind of had no romantic chemistry. Oddly though, as friends who fight crime, it worked. When they didn’t try to have them flirting, they worked better. They make good co-workers, though.
Jeremy: Their kiss at the end stuck out for me on this viewing. Alec Baldwin was the perfect Lamont Cranston in 1994. The same for Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Lane. (And holy shit, the supporting cast in this movie…) They’re not perfect together. They have some chemistry. It still works – and would’ve worked better if they kept their relationship platonic.
It ties into something else I found off on this viewing: Cranston is enjoying himself a little too much. That’s not Baldwin’s fault. He’s going off the script. I like that the movie is fun. I don’t want a “dark and gritty” Shadow. Cranston’s just a little too redeemed for the first movie. It’s like we’re getting where this character would be one or two sequels down the road.
Brett: If they were making the movie today, they would have things more franchise-minded. They probably would have a better idea what tone they want to strike and get closer to it. Or they’d try to get “clever” and ruin the whole thing with in-jokes and terrible ertaz radio shows.
Jeremy: Khan would be the First Horseman or some shit like that, yeah. Doc Savage would show up for one scene.
Brett: Now speaking of a character that needs a new movie!
Jeremy: Shane Black and The Rock, baby. I hope it gets made. I’m assuming the ’70s Doc Savage movie is something readers can expect in the future.
Brett: OK, there is one scene that I think should have been super chilling, but it’s played for laughs. When Shiwan Khan gets the guy to throw himself off the Empire State Building. Think about it and that’s a very dark and wicked. He makes someone commit suicide over a bit of mockery. I feel like John Lone thought that scene should be played darker. But then they cut away and make a joke as we see the body bouncing on the way down.
And killing the guard at the beginning is pretty dark -
Jeremy: Even if it’s Neelix from Voyager…
Brett: …and it’s given some weight. Again, the jumbled tone thing.
Jeremy: I lost my shit over the “It’s all falling into place…” gag in theaters, to the point where people turned around and looked at me. It’s a Peter Jackson/Sam Raimi joke. I still get a little nostalgic kick out of it, but thirtysomething Jeremy knows better.
It’s an honest swing and a miss. At least it’s not “Next time, you get to be on top.” What the hell is that doing in this movie?
What does everyone make of Russell Mulcahy? Through the ’80s and early ’90s, he made several movies like The Shadow that found their audience on home video.
Brett: I’m generally okay with him. He seems to know the movie he’s making. Commentaries and interviews with him have led me to believe there has been a lot of interference in the movies he’s made. He tries to please everyone, and as a result, a lot of his movies are all over the place.The light-hearted adventure thing can work, he made it work in Highlander. The story as presented here needed to be one thing or the other.
It should have gone more for light-hearted adventure and left the attempts at darkness to one side.
Jeremy: “He was a music video director” is a classic cheap shot, but it holds water here. It’s not that he’s too focused on visuals. There’s a stitched-together feeling here I get from a lot of movies made by directors who got their start in music videos.
It’s odd that I want Mulcahy to go darker with the material. That’s not usually my thing. I like that this is a redemption story. I’m all for stories that say, yes, we can change – but change is hard. It goes back to the fact that Lamont is already at Step 12 of Megalomaniac’s Anonymous when I want him at Step 8 or 9.
Brett: I could have done without the atomic bomb. I would have preferred some murder mystery story full of characters and suspects and not taking over the world or using atom bombs.
Jeremy: I’m indifferent about the A-bomb. And it should be said that the final showdown between The Shadow and Khan feels so weak because an earthquake destroyed the original set and they ran out of time and money.
Back to something positive: whoever came up with the notion that Lamont can never hide his shadow, the last vestige of the darkness within, is brilliant. To my knowledge, that was invented for this movie, and I can’t imagine the character without it now.
Brett: Oh, and I just checked. In the radio show, Lamont learned the invisibility trick from Yogi priests in India. And he used modern science to improve his mental skills. I’m not sure of the shadow on the wall was part of the comics. It’s an excellent addition.
Jeremy: In all the pulps I’ve read, he’s a master of stealth and disguises. When he’s sneaking around, bad guys sometimes see an odd shadow where one shouldn’t be, but that’s about it. To my knowledge, it’s not there as a weakness, nor does it symbolize anything. As the pulps go on, more vague hints of the supernatural pop up. The main writer of the pulps, Walter Gibson, wanted The Shadow to be horribly disfigured, prompting the need for all the disguises. Gibson’s editors nixed it.
Speaking of Sam Raimi, he pitched his version of The Shadow in the late ’80s using that premise. Once the studio passed, he ended up using those elements in Darkman.
Brett: How do we feel this fares as a historical piece? Is it a good historical piece? Bad? Do they set up the world well? Compare with Dick Tracy, The Phantom, Captain America: First Avenger – or something like Poirot and other UK period shows that subsequently played on A&E like crazy.
Jeremy: It’s a handsome production. Not sure how accurate it is. It works, though. Does this little niche of superhero movies have a name? I usually just call them Art Deco superhero movies. I hope we cover more movies in this quirky little sub genre. So far, we’ve talked about this and The Phantom. Depending on how long we do this, I imagine we’ll get to most of them. We definitely need to do Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow one day.
Brett: I always called these Hat movies, because of people wearing hats. I also put Indiana Jones in here, since I don’t think any of the other hat movies exist without Indy. I have a love/hate with Dick Tracy, because it was almost good and then Madonna shows up.
Jeremy: And The Rocketeer and The Phantom are more trying to capture the spirit of Indiana Jones than actual movies from the ’30s. If Batman: Mask of the Phantasm counts, that’s my clear favorite of the ’30s/’40s superhero homages.
And with that, final thoughts, everyone?
Gabby: This is another mess, but a fun one. Though it tries for way too many things that it doesn’t pull off, it works in serial form. Meaning that sequences and scenes work separately. But the movie as a whole, despite its flaws, has a lot of things to admire. The fact it aims for so much is quite charming really. And there are some sequences that make me want to watch it again relatively soon.
Brett: I will always have a soft spot for The Shadow and any movie directed by Russell Mulcahy. You can say a lot about the guy, but he tried to be interesting and exciting. You can feel him making an effort to just entertain you if he can. I’ve never seen one of his movies and thought he was being lazy. I appreciate him.
Jeremy: It’s still a lot of fun. I wish it was more solid, but here we are. I’m always going to have a soft spot for it. And not just for the movie it is and where it appeared in my life: this was my gateway into classic radio dramas and pulp fiction. It’s like your first kiss. It doesn’t matter if it was good. It was the beginning of something new.
Thanks for reading, everyone. Summertime and real life have interrupted our regular schedule of late, but we’re already a fair way into talking about Gabby and I’s picks. We’ll be back soon with John Carter.
In the meantime, follow us on Twitter where we talk about movies and other nerdy stuff. Oh, and say it with us one last time: stupid goddamned shrieking face knife…