Sunday, August 28, 2016

Film Review: The Shadow (1940 Serial)

Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows!

"The Shadow"
*** (out of ****)

Us old-timers will remember these words, as they were spoken before each episode of the radio program, The Shadow, which debuted in 1937, and for a while was voiced by Orson Welles.

"The Shadow" (1940) is a 15 chapter movie serial starring Victor Jory as the notorious crime fighter and mild mannered criminologist Lamont Cranston. It was the first movie serial devoted to the character after two feature length "B" movies had been made (which is essentially what this movie serial is as well).

For my money this movie serial is one of the definitive screen adaptions of the character despite not featuring many character traits established in the radio show and magazine stories, some of which were included in a 1994 movie starring Alec Baldwin, which is worth watching as well.

In this adventure the Shadow is pitted against a master criminal mind called the Black Tiger (the opening credits do not list the actor portraying the character) he is the head of an organization which aims to gain supreme financial power by threatening all major industrial leaders in an unnamed city. The industrial leaders, along with the police, rely on Lamont Cranston to help them bring down the organization and discover the identity of the Black Tiger, who only appears as a beam of light to the men that work for him. This is a switch for the Shadow as fans will recall it was the Shadow that had the ability to make himself invisible by being able to "cloud men's minds". That ability is not mentioned in this serial.

The first chapter in the serial, The Doomed City, is unlike other serials in that it does not provide the viewer with an origin story regarding the Shadow. Why does Cranston feel the urge to become this character? Instead we are thrown into the thrust of the story with the two forces (the Shadow and the Black Tiger) already battling each other.

"The Shadow", directed by James W. Horne, best known for working with Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy, tells its story in a rather straight forward way, not going in for the usual overly dramatic tone sometimes used in serials, although that isn't always the case, especially near the end of certain chapters when the actors ham it up before the ending cliffhanger. Still, "The Shadow" presents its ideas in a matter-of-fact way. Some have suggested because of Mr. Horne's background in comedy, the movie serials he directed ("The Green Archer" (1940) and "Flying G-Men" (1939) among others) were often satirical in nature. That is not my opinion of "The Shadow".

I also wouldn't describe the performance given by Victor Jory as satirical either. It too is done in a matter-of-fact way. I see no difference in Jory's interpretation of the Shadow then in any other actor playing any other crime fighter in any other serial. The only actors giving hammy performances are those of the henchmen that work for the Black Tiger. One scene has a henchmen ask another one to tell him the story of Little Red Ridding Hood, a story he likes very much!

There are also plot flaws in this serial. Two most prominently stand out. One is the lack of exciting cliffhangers. On more than one occasion the Shadow is placed in the middle of an explosion and we are told faces certain death. Yet the result and eventually survival (one didn't think the Shadow would die, did you?) of the character is always the same. This completely eliminates any suspense and wonderment regarding how will the character escape. The writers should have thought up new scenarios.

The second flaw is a lack of understanding the Black Tiger's ultimate goal. What is the end game? Yes, we are told he wants to gain financial power but what exactly does that mean? In several chapters the Black Tiger sets a plan in motion either to destroy one industry (aviation, railroads) or kidnaps the owner of said industry, but a ransom is never asked for. The Black Tiger doesn't seem interested in taking over the industry himself (or herself). So, what is the point? Is the character simply playing mind games? Is the chief objective to cause chaos and uncertainty? If so, how does that provide the Black Tiger with financial power?

One also has to wonder about the social significance of "The Shadow" in 1940s America. War was going on in Europe but the Black Tiger doesn't have a political agenda to be tied to Fascist regimes which were in power during the time. Contrast "The Shadow" to "Batman" (1943), which was a piece of American propaganda during the war. Batman (whom it has been suggested was inspired by the Shadow) fights a Japanese spy. "The Shadow" does however make use of emerging technology of the times, featuring computers and radar guns and mentions television (which had been in the works for decades but not made available to the public in 1940). I suppose America was just always in need for a hero, but, how strange our sympathies should be aligned with corporate entities and protecting their interest, which may be an interesting point in itself.

In the end however "The Shadow" works in keeping us guessing who exactly is the Black Tiger. There is also the possibility the identity of the Shadow will be revealed, as two characters do discover Cranston is the Shadow, but, can Cranston stop them in time before revealing this? At its best "The Shadow" is a well told mystery story. What sets it apart from the 1994 film is this serial is actually a bit more serious. The 1994 film, which naturally has better effects, sometimes better acting, an origin story and nostalgia for a bygone era, throws in a lot of comic relief, not giving the character the Shadow its proper due and illustrating its significance in crime fighter / superhero genre.

If you do not know anything about the character the Shadow, I am not sure this movie serial is the place to start. You should probably listen to the radio program or read some of the magazines. Of course I realize no one reading this will dare listen to a radio drama so I guess I suggest watching the 1994 film first and then watch this serial, so you'll have some understanding who the character is and his origins.

"The Shadow" is a good movie serial, but not one of the great ones and for that matter not one of the most popular. My favorite serial may be "Buck Rogers" (1939), a definite candidate for one of the most popular movie serials of all-time. If you enjoy "The Shadow" though you may also want to watch "The Green Hornet" (1940), "Batman" and "Superman" (1948).