Feb 1, 2021
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.
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:
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.
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…
…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.
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, 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?