Pulp Masterpieces, Part 1: The Shadow (1994)

I love the Pulp era. I’m talking about a hardboiled detective looking for a blackbird statue, or a husband/wife team sleuthing it with a precocious dog. I’m talking about a guy taking to the skies with a rocket strapped to his back, or a godlike man of science with bronze-hued skin in a torn shirt. I’m talking about alien horrors from the deep and ancient mummified monsters rising from Egyptian sands.

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Named after the cheap paper it was printed on, pulp magazines replaced the penny dreadfuls and really came into their own from the 1920s through the ’40s, and they were full of stories covering a diverse range of subjects. Just about any concept you can think of that would have been considered decent to print back then seemed to have had a magazine devoted to it. There were pulp train magazines, with stories about people, and trains. But like how comic books today are mostly associated with superheroes despite the fact that there have been funny books devoted to horror, romance, and other genres, pulp today is associated mostly with detectives and what was then modern adventure stories (sometimes with a sci-fi or supernatural twist), even though the likes of horror icon HP Lovecraft and adventure scribe and Conan the Barbarian author Robert E. Howard made their living writing some of their most iconic works at the time.

I thought it’d be fun to take a look at films that, with one notable exception, took place in and around the ’20s to ’40s, the era of pulp’s Golden Age. And for my first pulp film, I’m picking a movie based on a character who I think exemplifies the genre better than anyone else: The Shadow.

Appearing in magazines and novels, on the radio, and in comic books and movies, the Shadow is one of the most iconic literary figures in history. Tell me who this describes: a rich guy who’s a master of disguise, and also a hotshot pilot and skilled driver, as well as a multilingual genius with a host of detective and scientific skills who dresses all in black and uses gadgets to aid him in his fight against crime, and who also happens to be friends with the police commissioner. If you said “Batman”, you’re right, but the Shadow did it first and he did it with more style. Also, guns. The Shadow uses guns and not some stupid goddamn boomerang with a bat motif. The Shadow is all kinds of cool, with an iconic look that just screams badass. I mean, look at him:

Damn, I wish I was cool enough to be able to get away with wearing that hat in public.

Frankly, it shocks me that the Shadow isn’t more popular, and that there’s not a Shadow series on Netflix or a movie franchise. The Shadow is dark, mysterious, sexy, and his stories involve gangsters, Far East mystics, voodoo masters, and mad scientists. I’ve read almost 300 of the original Shadow novels (it’s an ongoing hobby; I read about one a month these days) and have checked out the comics here and there (The Shadow: Year One is one of the more recent stories and utterly outstanding), and judging by the sheer literary wealth of content, you could easily find something to sustain ten seasons or more on TV. I don’t know why there isn’t a greater demand for the Shadow. Maybe with the glut of superhero TV shows and motion pictures these days, there just isn’t a demand for a ’30s-era vigilante. Even though such a series would likely involve lots of trench coats and fedoras. Everything is better with trench coats and fedoras.

So because there appear to be no plans to produce a Shadow TV series or movie, we have to content ourselves with the novels, the comics… and that movie. I’m talking about the one from 1994.

Personally, I’ve had a love/hate/love affair with this film. When it first came out, I thought it was outstanding. And then I started reading the original novels, and like some elitist snob, I changed my mind and thought the film sucked because it wasn’t more like the original stories. And then over time, I grew to realize that faithful literal translations from books to movies don’t always work.

Your day will come, Doc Savage movie. Just not today.

Over time, I grew to appreciate the creative decisions director Russel Mulcahy made when adapting the character for the big screen. He pared down the number of agents the Shadow relied upon (seriously, in a lot of the early novels the Shadow came off more like a supporting character in his own story. Who would pay money to see a movie about Ypsilanti native Harry Vincent or reporter Clyde Burke?) and focused on the Shadow/Lamont Cranston, Moe Shrevnetz his driver, and Margo Lane, his partner/love interest (although in the novels, their relationship is ambiguous at best). And I didn’t appreciate then how much respect Mulcahy and writer David Koepp had for the source material. In the books, Shiwan Khan appears four times to plague the Shadow, and in the movie all four stories are referenced in some manner. Not bad.

But despite all my gushing over this film and the titular character, is it a good movie? Well, you can buy it for cheap on Amazon (wow, it’s been forever since I shilled for Amazon—I think not since my old TAS recaps), or watch it for three bucks on YouTube and make up your own mind, but for me I think that it endures as both a great superhero film and an excellent representation of pulp.

The plot (and there are spoilers, so you’ve been warned) is as follows. Lamont Cranston is a merciless warlord living in Tibet where he rules through terror…

Okay, just an aside here. Looking at Cranston’s lair is giving me a serious Return of the Jedi vibe, like it’s a pulp-era version of Jabba’s Palace. See this guy, standing off in the corner?

This guy is like a 1930s Boba Fett; he looks so badass I almost want him to have his own movie just to find out his back story. I’m half expecting Indiana Jones to be locked up in a back room hanging by his thumbs.

Okay, let me stay on track. Cranston is kidnapped and taken to a temple hidden by mystic forces where he’s forced to become a student of the Tulku, who gives Cranston the ability to cloak men’s minds and appear invisible to them as well as compelling the weak willed to do his bidding. Armed with these weapons, Cranston returns to western civilization as the Shadow to fight evil. Years later, a new menace arises: Shiwan Khan, a descendant of Ghengis Khan, who arrives in New York in his ancestor’s golden coffin.

He plans world conquest, and to do that, he requires a doomsday weapon, one developed in part by Doctor Reinhardt Lane…

Ian McKellan. Yes, he did movies before X-Men and Lord of The Rings.

…father of Cranston’s new love interest, Margo…

…who’s aided by Farley Claymore.

Khan gets hold of the device, which requires Lane’s core, Claymore’s beryllium sphere, and the bronzium coins Khan has brought with him. Combined, they form what new Shadow agent Dr. Roy Tam calls an “implosive-explosive, sub-molecular device”, or as Cranston puts it, an atomic bomb.

“Say, that’s catchy.”

Can the Shadow defeat a man with mental powers greater than his own, backed by fierce Mongol minions with no fear of death?

Frankly, there isn’t a lot about this movie that I dislike. There’s a pace-killing text crawl in the first act between Cranston’s time in Tibet and the Shadow appearing in New York that I think could have easily been handled via exposition. Jonathan Winters even makes mention of his nephew’s time in the East, and during the course of the film, we get bits and pieces given to us with dialogue between Cranston and Khan, as well as between our hero and his love interest Margo Lane. Perhaps with a touch more expository dialogue, they could have dispensed with the crawl entirely. I wonder if it was added as some sort of nod to ’30s-era adventure films (like the classic Flash Gordon crawl), or some suit just didn’t “get” the movie and thought viewers would be lost like him (making him the sort of guy who forced Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford to do that horrible voiceover for Blade Runner). Anyway, it’s the least of my problems with the film.

While I appreciate why so many of the Shadow’s agents were left out of the movie, looking at the film, I can’t see why they couldn’t have been given cameos instead of us getting these generic characters. Like this cop…

…who’s not a character from the pulps. Reporter Clyde Burke could have easily filled this role. Or this generic doctor…

…who could have been Dr. Rupert Sayre, the Shadow’s private physician. In fact, it would’ve been cool if Sayre (and this ain’t Sayre; he’s not a brain surgeon) had appeared in the movie, patching the Shadow up after he got shot in the beryllium sphere. Still, I thought Burbank’s cameo was every kind of cool.

And Roy Tam received a promotion of sorts; in the pulps he was a “good” Chinese (meaning he was westernized. Remember, it was the ’30s) and a community leader in Chinatown. In the film, he’s a physicist.

Another thing I didn’t like was the stupid ring gimmick. In the comic, one of the Shadow’s signature elements is his “girasol”, his fire opal ring which he sometimes uses to either identify himself with agents in his civilian identity or to aid him in hypnotizing the weak minded. It’s almost as iconic an element to his look as the slouch hat or twin .45s. But in the film, the rings are worn by Cranston and all of his agents, and his even glows when Burbank has a message for him.

I thought it was a stupid plot element that wasn’t needed.

Was the film’s tone too light-hearted? Eh, maybe. But on the one hand, I can’t say I like light-hearted pulp stories and then criticize Mulcahy for giving me a light-hearted movie. As for using Shiwan Khan in the first film, I’m not sure what else they could have done. I’ve discussed this with my friend Dave, and he felt the Shadow should have faced off against mobsters his first time out, and Khan should have been in the sequel. While I think that does sound awesome, the problem is the Shadow was and is not as well-known as other superheroes such as Spider-Man, Superman, or Batman, and a sequel was never a sure thing. I think the feeling was Mulcahy wanted to ensure we got as good a movie as he could make, and using the Shadow’s greatest nemesis was part of his strategy. Today, with the prevalence of superhero movies, perhaps we could see a build up to a showdown with Shiwah Khan in the final chapter of a trilogy, but I fear that’s just wishful thinking.

Finally, I wasn’t entirely crazy about the Shadow’s origin. Cranston is forced to become the Shadow rather than choosing to turn away from his wicked ways.

Then again, what Manly Man could walk away from this?

Then again, I will concede that his origin is unique compared to many others we’ve seen in superhero movies. Forcing a villain into becoming a hero may sound familiar, but I wouldn’t say Suicide Squad ripped of The Shadow, seeing as the Suicide Squad comic predates the movie by at least eight years. Yes, my nerd knowledge is vast.

I know it sounds like there’s a ton of stuff I don’t like about the movie, but a lot of it is incidental, and I feel the good easily outweighs the bad. For example, the look of the movie is outstanding. From 1930s New York…

…to the Hotel Monolith, Shiwah Khan’s lair…

…to the Shadow’s sanctum…

…as well as the Tibet scenes, Mulcahy does an excellent job of capturing exactly what I have in my mind when I picture what the Shadow’s world looks like.

Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack is stellar and a gift to the ears. I owned the original release and liked it, but when my friend and fellow Shadowphile Brian loaned me the 2012 release of the complete score, I was utterly amazed at how good the music truly is. I can’t stress just how well the music compliments the movie, and I can say without hesitation it’s some of Goldsmith’s greatest work. Hell, even that Taylor Dayne song isn’t bad. It’s not really appropriate to the movie, but it’s tacked onto the end credits and I’m sure the producers were angling for a hit single.

And how about the look of the Shadow himself? In the novels, the costume merely consists of a slouch hat (apparently like a fedora, only bigger. And floppier) and cloak thrown over whatever Lamont Cranston is wearing at the time. But the costume designers did a stellar job of giving the look a more dramatic feel for the big screen:

Penelope Ann Miller is fine as Margo Lane, and it’s nice that her turn as a mind controlled pawn of Shiwan Khan is offset by her rescuing the Shadow from a death trap (also, kudos to Mulcahy for not making her mind control sequence creepy. Well, no more or less creepy than what happens to Khan’s male victims); the Shadow’s girlfriend should have lots of moxie. Ian McKellan is great in the role of her father, the quintessential absent minded professor, and it’s both fun and strange seeing the man in a comedic role considering the fact that he’s become a nerd demi-god since. As for Tim Curry, Farley Claymore (and as a side note, that name sounds exactly like the sort of moniker Shadow scribe Maxwell Grant would have come up with) is a joy to watch. Claymore is an opportunistic, cowardly scumbag, and his utter breakdown when experiencing the Shadow’s power is gloriously over the top.

Also, I’d like to make a special shout-out to the late, great Peter Boyle as Moe Shrevnitz, the Shadow’s driver.

One of my favorite actors (just watch his guest appearance on Saturday Night Live: Dueling Brandos, The Killer Bees vs. the WASPs, and Samurai Divorce Court are hilarious), Boyle is great as the Shadow’s sidekick.

John Lone’s portrayal of Shiwah Khan is without a doubt one of the best parts of the movie. He owns it as the Shadow’s greatest menace, a man who can truly warp and manipulate the minds of anyone and everyone around him, even causing an entire city to ignore the existence of a skyscraper.

And how did Alec Baldwin do as the Shadow? Well… he’s not bad. Baldwin actually does a better job as evil Lamont Cranston, and when he’s interacting with his uncle you get the impression he’s playing the role of millionaire playboy. And then you realize this is how he’s going to play Lamont throughout the film. Yes, sometimes there’s a hint of Cranston’s dark side, but I don’t think there’s enough of that to my liking.

To me, Cranston should be just as dark as the near-soulless bandit chieftain he was, only now his energies are focused on uprooting the bitter weed of crime. Cranston the playboy should be a mask, with the Shadow being who he truly is. Sadly, I think Baldwin handles the role in too light-hearted a manner. Still, it’s a tolerable performance and not a deal breaker.

Give The Shadow a look. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Next time, I’ll take a gander at one of the most iconic motion pictures of all time. Perhaps you caught the clue to its identity in the article?

Tag: Pulp Masterpieces

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  • Kenneth Morgan

    I enjoyed the movie a lot, and I liked how they managed to combine the radio & pulp versions of the character, including losing the whole Kent Allard angle, which would’ve been too complicated. (It’s retained, however, in James Luceno’s novelization.)
    By the way, I understand that Sam Raimi wanted to do a Shadow movie, but couldn’t get the rights, so he created Darkman, instead. However, I understand he’s trying again to get a Shadow adaptation off the ground.

    • Thomas Stockel

      I didn’t know that about Darkman, but I can seem some Shadow in that character (i.e. the master of disguise, the cloak-like trench coat.). I’d love to see Raimi take a shot at the Shadow franchise. I will be interested in seeing where his 1973 Olds will appear in it. 🙂

  • ussafs3

    I enjoyed the movie and even made that my Halloween costume that year! It’s funny now that Alec Baldwin, like Leslie Nielsen, has found a late second career as a comedy actor playing off his original serious demeanor.

    • Thomas Stockel

      Honestly his decision to become a comedic actor came as a bit of a surprise, but I guess he did hint at his comedic talents way, way back in Married To The Mob.

  • This is the movie I point to when I say Baldwin would have been a better pick to play Batman in “Batman” and Michael Keaton should have been the Joker, and I point to “Beatlejuice” to illustrate why.

    I am also in the camp that says, “Have Shadow fight mobsters, that way more of the focus can be on the hero, learning his moves, learning his methods, rather than having attention split between him and the villain. Also, the villain is incredibly corny, even by the standards of the setting, it is a step too far into the mythology, need to ease yourself into that. It also undercuts the menace of the villain to say he is more powerful than the hero, but you haven’t even established the hero’s limits to the audience.

    • Thomas Stockel

      I will concede those are some valid points. But I still understand why Mulcahy et all decided to go the route they did. I think perhaps if today you had a Shadow television series on Netflix or FX or the like then yeah, you would have the leisure to ease into the mythology. But I think Mulcahy and co. honestly thought they were lucky enough to get their one bite at the apple and opted to go for broke with Shiwan Khan.

      And Pulp itself can be very corny, it’s part of it’s charm. If people keep reading the articles then you can see exactly how gloriously corny it can get.

      • Oh, you are talking to the right guy when it comes to pulp appreciation. I have got plenty of those story collections of Robert E Howard on my bookshelf, I have a massive humble bundle collection of Dynamite Comics adapting “John Carter” and “Tarzan”.

        The first campaign I ran for “Mutants and Masterminds” was all about pulp age heroes being recruited by the government to fight B-Movie monsters (The Shadow was one of the guest stars with Margo having taken up a fan-fiction title of Silhouette and also being an agent).

        • Thomas Stockel

          Very cool. 🙂 I was running a Champions Pulp adventure (That supplement is outstanding, by the way. A very, very comprehensive look at the 20s-40s era as well as a great look at the Pulp genre as a whole.) and I had a good time with it. My favorite part was the Prisoner of Zenda storyline because one player used singer Gerard Way to represent his character and when I saw him in his Black Parade outfit I was inspired. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/287ea7f5b917b4952c6f34bff248ca449676d2004ab692d15e242a5fb1da953d.jpg

          • I do not know why this style is not more prevalent. I remember this sort of 50’s big band thing being in style in the 90’s (“The Mask” being the best example) but it seemed to disappear without comment. It is slick and coloful and I do not know why it is not being used more.

            You don’t even have to bring back the characters of the era, but I would love a Pulp inspire rendition Superman fighting giant boxy robots or traditional looking UFO’s. Or a Batman that has a biplane pilot costume variant (Batman in a double breasted jacket, shoulder mantle and goggles should exist!).

            You should read Gerard Way’s comic “Umbrella Academy”. Much like “Hellboy” and “Atomic Robo” it has a lot of pulp action elements to it, the first thing they fight is a steam punk Gustave Eiffel-zombie while using an airship.

  • Olaf_the_Lofty

    “the Tulku, who gives Cranston the ability to cloak men’s minds and
    appear invisible to them as well as compelling the weak willed to do his
    bidding”. The obvious “modern” comparison is “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded”. I presume your reference was intentional. I haven’t read any Shadow pulp novels (though I daresay some SF and horror from the period which I have read was originally printed that way) but does this suggest the Jedi may have been inspired by this character’s abilities?

    • Thomas Stockel

      Any inference was unintentional, I assure you. Lucas was influenced by many sources (i.e. The Hidden Fortress) and he was certainly influenced by that era’s motion pictures (i.e. the text scroll was taken from old Flash Gordon serials.). In the pulp novels for the longest time The Shadow’s stealthy abilities were implied as being supernatural in origin but Maxwell Grant never came right out and said it. When Shiwan Khan was introduced that kind of opened the door to the idea that there were people running around with full blown telepathic abilities and The Shadow knew a thing or two. And then years later all of that was dumped.

  • Cristiona

    My brother loved this movie. I found it enjoyable enough, if a little forgettable. But now I’m thinking I’ll check it out again.

    Can’t wait to see you tackle The Phantom…

  • Alas, pretty much any attempt at a “pulp hero revival” these days will be shot down as a “superhero knockoff” – when the actual reality is that the comic book superheroes were all “knockoffs” of the pulp heroes!

    Green Lantern => E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “Lensman”
    Superman, the “Man of Steel” => “Doc” Savage, the “Man of Bronze”
    Batman => Zorro

    • Thomas Stockel

      Glad to see I’m not the only person who read Lensmen. That series got pretty over the top, what with people weaponizing entire planets and tossing them at each other. It was like Smith kept wanting to out-do himself with each book.

  • NameWithheldByRequest

    My first exposure to the Shadow was the DC mini-series by Howard Chaykin in the mid-80s, which I just loved, and probably why I was so disappointed by this movie. I later read some of the pulps (which were ok) and the comic series (which was fantastic). From the little I’ve been exposed to, The Shadow is actually very faithful to the source material, but I wasn’t as enamored of it as others seem to be…

    • Thomas Stockel

      I love the mini series you’re talking about. I wasn’t crazy about it when it first came out maybe partly because I wasn’t enamored of Chaykin’s style, but a couple years ago I was able to pick up the trade and I have a new appreciation of his work. I especially love his American Flagg; I was able to pick up those, too.

      To be honest, the source material is inconsistent. When first introduced The Shadow’s identity is unknown and he borrows Lamont Cranston’s when the man is out of town. When Cranston returns unexpectedly The Shadow is a bit of a dick about it and points out he can be a better Cranston than him so if anyone got kicked out by the police it would be the original. Bemused, Cranston agrees to “share” his identity. Later it is discovered The Shadow is Kent Allard, ace pilot and war hero believed to have been lost in the Amazon for five years.

      And all of that got scrapped some time in the forties, around when Margo Lane was introduced. Now Cranston was The Shadow, there was no “real” Lamont Cranston. And from what I’ve seen any and all mystic elements were scrapped. It might change, I dunno; I’m only up to Stamps of Death, story #292. I’ve still got 1946-1949 to get to.

  • Melvin shermen

    When are you doing the dov savage movie

  • William Bird

    This is another film that disappointed me in the theater and it is only over time that I’ve come to love. I grew up on the radio serials (Thank you Arm Forces Radio) and reading the pulps when I could find them. I loved the Oniel/Kaluta comics and they probably locked in my image of Lamont Cranston. He’s not Alec Bladwin, he’s more Jeremy Brett. That said I thought when they put Billy Baldwins nose on Alec he looked the part as the shadow.

    A lot of really talented people we cast correctly and did a great job but for me the film was too light (It’s a pun boy, a pun. Don’t you get it.?) The Shadow needs to be darker and more mysterious. I often oppose the need for origin in the story. The dark and mysterious character should be that both to other characters in the film and to the audience. Questions hook peoples attention and answers release them from caring. Especially if the questions are answered before the questions are asked.

    That said, I’ve come to love this film and it makes a great double feature with the Rocketeer.