With the massive commercial success of Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) every studio in Hollywood wanted to replicate it and this kickstarted a feeding frenzy for a pulp story/comic book property that would connect with the mainstream movie-going public. The result was a string of lavish adaptations of Dick Tracy (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), and The Phantom (1996). The Shadow (1994) also came out of this same period and like the aforementioned movies failed to perform at the box office at the same level as Batman. In fact, The Shadow barely made back its budget but has since gone on to develop a cult following.
The Shadow was based on the pulp fiction character of the same name created in 1931 by Walter B. Gibson. The character got his start on the radio as an enigmatic narrator and when he became popular enough was given an identity by Gibson who developed the character and his world in a series of pulp novels that was soon adapted into an even more popular radio series (voiced by none other than Orson Welles for a short time). Over the years, the durable character was adapted in comic books, movie serials and B-movies but it wasn’t until 1994 that The Shadow would get big budget treatment from Hollywood.
We meet Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin, sporting horrible looking long hair) in Tibet. It is after the First World War and he is indulging in his darker impulses, becoming a warlord and opium kingpin known as Ying-Ko. One day, he is kidnapped by the servants of Tulku (Brady Tsurutani), a holy man with mystical powers. He is forced to face his dark side and use this knowledge to defeat evil in all of its various guises. Tulku also teaches Cranston all of his abilities and sends him back to his home in New York City where becomes a crime fighter known as the Shadow.
We meet his colorful alter ego in an impressively staged sequence where he prevents three gangsters from throwing a man off the Brooklyn Bridge. The Shadow uses fear as a weapon, scaring the men with echo-y laughter and his voice that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, tormenting the lead goon by revealing his past crimes. Initially, we only get vague glimpses of the Shadow as he appears and disappears with alarming speed. It is only until he dispatches the gangsters that we get a full reveal of the character and this is accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing score.
Cranston switches back to himself and heads off to the Cobalt Club where he meets with police commissioner Wainwright Barth (Jonathan Winters) for dinner and proceeds to ignore him when he spots Margo Lane (Penelope Ann Miller), the beautiful daughter of a scientist (Ian McKellen) working for the War Department. We get a nice moment where Cranston uses his mental powers to cloud the commissioner’s mind to forget about creating a taskforce to stop the Shadow in a way that director Russell Mulcahy portrays as part film noir and part Jedi mind trick.
A silver sarcophagus arrives at the Museum of Natural History from Tibet housing Shiwan Khan (John Lone), a rogue protégé of Tulku and the last descendant of Genghis Khan. He possesses the same powers as Cranston but is obsessed with world domination. He plans on achieving this by kidnapping Margo’s father and use his work to build an atomic bomb. Cranston has to use all of the powers at his disposal in order to stop Khan.
Alec Baldwin impresses early on as the suave Cranston who not only uses his powers on his uncle but also to pick up Margo. They go on an impromptu date at a Chinese restaurant and he amazes her by ordering in Chinese. “You speak Chinese?” she asks him and without a missing a beat he replies, “Only Mandarin.” Baldwin exhibits good comic timing and his movie star looks are a great fit for the dashing millionaire. Watching him in The Shadow makes me realize what a good Bruce Wayne he would have been. The actor had the charisma, presence and a commanding voice that would have been so well-suited for the role.
With Awakenings (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), and The Shadow, the early to mid-1990s saw Penelope Ann Miller at the height of her mainstream popularity. With her retro good looks she makes for a good Margo Lane and has nice chemistry with Baldwin. I was never a big fan of hers and so she doesn’t do much for me in the role but she certainly looks the part.
The always-reliable Ian McKellen has fun as the absent-minded professor too occupied with his work to notice that his daughter is being romanced by Cranston. Peter Boyle shows up as the Shadow’s most trusted ally and Jonathan Winters pops up in a mostly straight-faced role as the city’s clueless police commissioner and gets to criticize Cranston for his habitual tardiness. John Lone plays the movie’s ruthless, scenery-chewing villain and is suitably evil in the role, holding his own with Baldwin in their scenes together as they banter back and forth between getting down to serious issues.
Much like Batman and Dick Tracy, the world of The Shadow is created with a combination of soundstages and matte paintings, which gives it an intentionally stylized look – a 1930s inhabited by Art Deco nightclubs and sinister alleyways. The attention to period detail, down to the cars, clothing and advertisements that decorate buildings is fantastic. It is also great to see big city scenes populated by numerous living and breathing extras. Unlike the CGI worlds of today, the one in The Shadow feels tangible and real. It has depth and detail that we buy into and this is even more glaringly evident in the CGI-created Phurba, a mystical flying dagger, which is controlled by Khan. It looks awkward and out of place with the rest of the practical effects.
Journeyman director Russell Mulcahy provides the requisite stylistic flourishes without being too showy. He is savvy enough to know when to inject some style and orchestrates this big movie with skill but lacks the personal idiosyncrasies that Tim Burton brought to his Batman movies. As a result, there is a bit of generic complacency to The Shadow that was also evident in The Phantom.
After Batman everyone seemed content to ape Danny Elfman’s score (including himself) for their own comic book superhero movies and so it is refreshing to hear that Jerry Goldsmith avoids this with a score that has a classical feel while also a contemporary heroic vibe to it. His cues help propel the action and add atmosphere to the downtime between these sequences.
The Shadow has a nice streak of light-hearted humor that runs throughout and David Koepp’s screenplay picks the right moments to use it, like when Cranston and Khan meet for the first time and these two powerful men sniff each other out, even engaging in banter like the latter admiring the former’s tie before Khan reveals his true intentions:
Khan: In three days, the entire world will hear my roar, and willingly fall subject to the lost empire of Shiwan Khan. That is a lovely tie, by the way. May I ask where you acquired it? Cranston: Brooks Brothers. Khan: Is that mid-town? Cranston: 45th and Madison. You are a barbarian. Khan: Thank you. We both are.
Remember when super hero movies didn’t take themselves too seriously? Obviously, they went too far by the end of the decade with Batman & Robin (1997), which is just out-and-out silly, but then with X-Men (2000) they got serious again and going darker with the genre has reached its apex with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Watching The Shadow again, with all of this in mind, I was struck at how well it gets the mix of humor and dramatic heroics that is sorely missing from most comic book superhero movies today.
For years, movie producer Martin Bregman had been trying to get The Shadow made. He had gone through numerous screenwriters but none of them could figure out the material to his satisfaction until he approached David Koepp, who started working on it in 1989. According to Bregman, “Thematically the earlier drafts didn’t work…No one really could get this guy and it never had the size it should have.” The writer was a fan of the old radio show and for research read The Shadow Scrapbook, The Duende History of the Shadow Magazine and many of the pulp novels featuring the character. He incorporated elements from all of these various sources into his script. For example, he took characters and villains from the pulp novels and took the tone of the radio show and made up his own story.
When it came to casting, Roy Scheider had been considered as the Shadow at some point as did Jeremy Irons. Bregman approached Alec Baldwin to play the Shadow and the actor loved Koepp’s script and agreed to take on the role. One of the challenges he faced was looking and acting like the Shadow: “You have to learn how to move with all that stuff on. You want to be graceful. It’s something you have to learn how to integrate into the performance you’re going to give, because the minute you get all the makeup on, everything changes.”
At the wrap party for Carlito’s Way (1993), which he was also producing, Bregman asked Penelope Ann Miller to read the script for The Shadow. She saw the character of Margo Lane as “reminiscent to me of the great characters that Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford played.”
Director Russell Mulcahy knew about the project ten years prior but when he heard people like Robert Zemeckis were being considered he assumed there was no chance despite being interested. While working on the Bregman-produced The Real McCoy (1993) its star Kim Basinger was so impressed with Mulcahy that she recommended to her then-husband Baldwin that the director should helm The Shadow.
For the look of the movie, production designer Joe Nemec III created a world that was set in the 1936-38 range. Since most of the movie takes place in New York City, he consulted a period era map in order to get an idea of where everything was located, like Cranston’s mansion, which was around East 52nd Street. Creating the city was the responsibility of visual FX supervisor Alison Savitch who was hired just before principal photography started when the producers realized they needed someone in charge of the increasing number of visual effects. She ended up using a combination of models, matte paintings and CGI to recreate late ‘30s New York.
Principal photography began in the summer of 1993 on the Universal Studios lot in Hollywood on five of their soundstages over 14 weeks on a $40 million budget. Filming went relatively smoothly with only one week lost when an earthquake struck, destroying the Hall of Mirrors set.
For the most part, the movie was ripped to shreds by mainstream critics. In her review for The New York Times, Caryn James wrote, “Such dark-hearted, cartoonish crime fighters are awfully familiar on screen right now, and this movie is too meek to set itself apart.” Entertainment Weekly gave the movie a “D” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Baldwin, a good actor who needs to start playing characters with an edge, looks puffy and smug in this cockeyed-hero role. Like Batman, the Shadow is meant to be a good guy with a touch of evil, but Baldwin just acts like James Bond’s smart-ass brother.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Baldwin, Lone and Penelope Ann Miller as the glamorous Margo Lane continually struggle for the right tone, while Tim Curry as a mad scientist gives up the fight and goes totally over the top. And what could have been a classic ends up yet another story of what might have been.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “But without a compelling story at the center, this is just a mediocre MTV-Wagnerian fantasy.”
However, Roger Ebert gave the movie three out of four stars and wrote, “The story itself may not be so mesmerizing, but who really cares? Style and tone are everything with a movie like this, which wants to bring to life a dark secret place in the lurid pulp imagination.” Finally, Jonathan Rosenbaum felt that the movie had “enough of the innocent exoticism and splendor of silent thrillers to suggest a continuity with the past missing from most other movies; all that’s required is a capacity to sit back and dream.”
Coming after Batman, The Shadow was accused of copying it when in fact Bob Kane’s creation is indebted to Gibson’s stories, which came first, but most moviegoers were unaware of this at the time and the movie did not perform well. No one has made another adaptation since with only Sam Raimi currently owning the movie rights but has so far done little with the property. The time is right for another take on this iconic character but whoever tackles it might want to contemporize it much like Howard Chaykin did with his controversial comic book adaptation in 1986 as audiences don’t seem to respond to retro pulp adventures (with a few notable exceptions, like The Mummy and Captain America: First Avenger).
While The Shadow may not be as visually dazzling as Dick Tracy, the characters are more fully realized than in Warren Beatty’s opus, which feels overstuffed. It is more successful translating its source material than The Phantom, but isn’t quite as satisfying or as distinctive as The Rocketeer, the best of the post-Batman crop of retro comic book adaptations. That being said, The Shadow is an entertaining and engaging effort that has a lot going for it, most notably an appealing performance by Baldwin, a terrific score by Goldsmith, and top notch production values.
Jones, Alan. “Me and My Shadow.” Starburst. November 1994.
Murray, Will. The Shadow: The Official Movie Magazine. 1994.
Peterson, Don E. “The Shadow Takes Shape.” Sci-Fi Entertainment. August 1994.