Monday, November 10, 2014

Pulp Cinema: The Shadow

Pulp Magazines, or "the pulps" were cheap fiction magazines that descended from dime store novels and were prevalent in the early 1900's through World War II.  Pulp refers to the inexpensive wood pulp paper used for printing versus the heavy and glossy stock reserved for magazines.  Genres like adventure, detective, horror and fantasy ruled while over the top heroes Doc Savage, The Shadow, Tarzan, Conan the Barbarian and John Carter of Mars graced dozens of novels.  Those same heroes would also transcend various medias like comic strips, comic books, radio programs, serials, television shows and of course, motion picture adaptations.

The 1990's were a terrific time for such heroes as period set, non-mainstream, DC and Marvel movie descendents and predecessors like Dick Tracy, The Rocketeer, The Shadow and The Phantom all got the big budget, big screen treatment.  Each of these films holds a special place in my heart and today we'll take a look at 1994's The Shadow.  Developed in 1930, the crime fighting vigilante with physic powers and a playboy secret identity, The Shadow became a fixture in pulps appearing in 325 printed adventures over 20 years with 282 of them written by Walter B. Gibson.  The Shadow also became a prominent radio drama, originally voiced by then 22 year old Orson Welles and was broadcast for nearly 20 years, ending in 1954.  Serials and low budget features were produced in the 30's and 40's then a line of comic books from DC in the 70's and 80's carried on the legacy.

"The sun is shining." But the ice, is slippery...

I recently sat down to watch the Shout! Factory Blu-Ray and found myself still enjoying the action/mystery/noir/fantasy after all these years.  Opening in post World War I Tibet, we meet ruthless local opium warlord Ying-Ko whose bubble of power is interrupted when he is kidnapped and brought to the Tulku, a powerful holy man who knows Ko's true identity as Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin), disillusioned veteran with dark thoughts and strange mental abilities.  Tulku teaches Cranston how to harness his powers to cloud minds and use his powers for good.  7 years later, Cranston returns to New York City where he is man about town by day and black hat, coat and scarlet scarf clad, twin .45 pistol toting anti-hero The Shadow by night.  Cranston meets the beautiful Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), a woman his uncle/Police Chief warns him to stay away from as she hears voices.  Turns out she has the same telepathic powers as Cranston but didn't get the cool training in Tibet.  Things get crazy when Shiwan-Khan (John Lone), a fellow student of Tulku and last descendent of Genghis-Khan who uses his powers for evil, shows up looking to take over the city.

What I really noticed viewing it again was the grand visual scope of the film utilizing matte paintings, huge art deco sets, cars and wardrobe from the 1930's setting.  That and the fact that the flick has a sense of humor as Baldwin is very smooth, debonair and charming as Cranston and the supporting cast of cooky and memorable characters like taxi driver Moe (Peter Boyle), bomb making Dr. Reinhardt Lane (Ian McKellan), sleazy associate Farley Claymore (Tim Curry) and rescued scientist Dr. Tam (Sab Shimono) all add an extra layer of likeability.  The period setting mixed with The Shadow's ability to hide himself from enemies makes for some visually interesting wham bam action sequences in and around dark bridges, laboratories and ornately designed hotels.  Some of the goings on were kind of surprising as bodies are thrown off the tops of buildings, bouncing and crashing on top of cars, a shard of glass to the forehead, a dream where Cranston rips off his face, etc along with some sexual innuendos I missed as a kid.  Jerry Goldsmith's score is fantastic as well, huge and theatrical to match what we're seeing.

"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit."

Ably directed by Highlander's Russell Mulcahy, The Shadow was intended to become a franchise starter for Universal but was sadly not to be.  Budgeted at a healthy $40 million bucks, the film shot mostly on Universal's backlot where Production Designer Joe Nemec III and crew transformed the fake streets and six sound stages into 60+ sets.   Released on July 1st, 1994, The Shadow would open up # 2 with $11.7 million clams, behind Disney's massive hit The Lion King, on it's way to a middling $32 million gross.  This would continue the diminishing returns pattern after period adventure flicks Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer in 1990 and 1991.  1996's rousing pulpy adventure The Phanom would gross even less.  I can't remember if I saw this in a theater or not but distinctly recall having the VHS, a poster on my wall and a few of the action figures where you'd shove Cranston's head down and attached a hat and scarfed The Shadow top complete with cape.

Cinefantastique covered The Shadow in their August 1994 issue with a staggering 27 page look at the film covering the development of the film, origins of the character, director Mulcahy, the radio program, writer David Koepp, special make up, past film and serial versions, production design, computer effects, merchandise, matte painting and miniatures.  It's amazing to see how much work goes into a movie just from reading it, not even living it.  One of the major thrulines is the ambitious scale of the film and it's visual inspirations while working with a moderate budget and schedule of 64 days.  Producer Martin Bregman had the rights for 12 years and wanted to introduce the popular culture phenom to a whole new generation.  Writer David Koepp was familiar with the radio shows and was tasked with making The Shadow more movie friendly and not just an invisible man as depicted in the radio program.  Koepp eventually wrote 15 drafts of the film and always visualized Alec Baldwin in the role.  It was decided to keep the tone light and to have fun instead of going the dark and serious route of 1989's juggernaut Batman.  Baldwin was drawn to the dark past of the heroic title character, a once evil man now atoning for his sins.  Miller had worked with Bregman and Koepp on the Al Pacino crime thriller Carlito's Way and enjoyed not being a damsel in distress and the rapid, 30's style banter while John Lone went deep method in his role as Khan. The notion of a sequel was raised before release with Koepp ready and willing, thinking a showdown with the Voodoo Master would make for a great follow up.  Cut to today and movement on a new adaptation has all but died out.  Evil Dead and Spider-Man helmer Sam Raimi was eager to make the film but was denied the opportunity in the 90's.  It's said that his Darkman, a story of a disfigured scientist fighting a crime boss, was his version of The Shadow.  In recent years, Raimi acquired the rights but as of 2012 states he was unable to mount a satisfactory script and has essentially abandoned the project.

"The Shadow knows!"

On Shout!'s 20th anniversary release, we get comments from many of the major players including Mulcahy, Baldwin, Miller, Nemec and Cinematographer Stephen H. Burum.  Baldwin really wanted to work with Koepp and sings his praises but makes no mention of Mulcahy while Miller gives props to the writer and the leading man.  Mulcahy talks about the terrific cast and Lone's method style off set which led to funny interactions, especially during lunch. Everyone seems to think Miller has a very 1930's look and was perfect for the role.  Also discussed is The Shadow's place as a film caught in between eras of technology as old school methods like matte paintings were mixed with visual f/x to make a knife with a face fly around.

Until we pick up the Tommy Gun and ride with Dick Tracy, before we strap on the jetpack with The Rocketeer and until we slam some evil with The Phantom; check every corner, every empty room, as inevitable as your guilty conscience...The Shadow will be there!

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