The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Shadow

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at THE SHADOW!

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THE STORY: An American working as a warlord in China is redeemed by a holy man. Now posing as playboy Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin), he uses his newly-acquired mastery of the dark arts to fight crime as “The Shadow”. When a renegade pupil of his former master, Shiwan Khan (John Lone) emerges in New York, Cranston finds himself face-to-face with an adversary whose skills rival his own.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Alec Baldwin, John Lone, Penelope Ann Miller, Ian McKellen, Jonathan Winters, Peter Boyle & Tim Curry. Music by Jerry Goldsmith. Written by David Koepp. Directed by Russell Mulcahy.

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THE HISTORY: THE SHADOW came along at an interesting time for super hero movies. With BATMAN & BATMAN RETURNS having been major hits, the studios were looking to dip their toe into the genre, but seemed unwilling to deal with the big comic companies. As such, the superhero movies they made tended to be originals (DARKMAN), based on cult-properties (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, THE CROW, SPAWN) or old-time pulp, like THE PHANTOM and our subject this week.

With noted visual stylist Russell Mulcahy at the helm, fresh from the disaster of HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING, THE SHADOW was an ambitious attempt by Universal to make their own Batman. With rising star Alec Baldwin in the lead, Martin Bregman as a producer (fresh off CARLITO’S WAY), a script by JURASSIC PARK writer David Koepp, and a hefty (for 1994) $40 million budget, THE SHADOW was intended as the start of a major franchise.

You know, it’s so hard to tell the rhyme or reason, and why certain movies make it and some don’t. A lot of it’s timing, a lot of it’s how they promote it… I don’t know. I think it could have been, I really do. I think it’s a fun film to watch, so I don’t know why it didn’t catch on. It could be a lot of variables that I, unfortunately, don’t have any control over - Penelope Ann MillerRandom Roles interview

the shadow penelope ann miller

Too bad for all involved that THE SHADOW fell under a shadow of its own – THE LION KING. With that movie still playing to sold-out crowds, THE SHADOW had to settle for a decent number two opening at the box office. Even worse was the fact that the next weekend, FORREST GUMP hit theaters and totally took the wind out of their sails, something not helped by TRUE LIES opening a week after that. Having been released at the same time as the year’s highest grossing films, THE SHADOW was lucky to walk away with $32 million, a gross nowhere near sufficient to justify a sequel, a matter made worse by the measly $18 million it made internationally. The film, despite doing relatively well on home video (it was one of Universal’s first DVD releases – albeit in pan & scan), quickly went down as a major box office flop.

In 1992, I did ‘Malice,’ with Nicole Kidman. And that movie was a very cookie-cutter thriller. It did pretty well. In ’93, I did the remake of ‘The Getaway,’ with my wife. That was a bomb. I did ‘The Shadow.’ That was a bomb. In ’94, I did ‘Heaven’s Prisoners.’ That was a bomb. In ’95, I did ‘The Juror.’ That was a bomb. In ’96, I did ‘The Edge’ and ‘Ghosts of Mississippi.’ And that’s when you hear the sound of the wheels of the train screeching to a halt. – Alec BaldwinNew Yorker interview 

the shadow alec baldwin

WHY IT'S GREAT: To an audience of a certain age, THE SHADOW is a much-loved film, although anyone not born between 1979-1989 probably hasn’t heard of it. Heck, the movie never even got an anamorphic DVD release until a few years ago, when Universal hastily put out a Blu-Ray, which was followed by a superb Shout Factory upgrade that reunited much of the cast and crew, including Baldwin, who hasn’t discussed the film much since it tanked in ’94. It’s been well-covered here on JoBlo, with Jason Adams doing an Awfully Good on it, and Alex Maidy giving it an entry in The Unpopular Opinion.

I guess the producer had, I think he had a slightly different vision of the film than I did. So, for example, with the knife. I wanted that to come to life and be animated. And there was a bit of a struggle in trying to make the film, maybe, a bit more fantastic. I think he wanted to make more of a 40’s retro romantic film. And so we did have some discussions about “we should add more fantasy into this film, more effect.” – Russell Mulcahy – “How Did This Get Made” Interview

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Over twenty years later, many critics look back at it as an example of how Hollywood had no idea how to handle comic book properties before Marvel got into the game, but it’s a swell little film. I enjoyed it so much in theaters, that as a teen I actually collected cassette tapes of the old radio show Orson Welles did back in the thirties. I found the premise pretty intoxicating, with The Shadow emphasizing trickery and terror over brawn. The film itself doesn’t quite stick to those guns, with Baldwin’s Shadow getting into scraps and shooting his way out of trouble – but hey, what works on radio might not have worked on the big screen.

Overall, it’s a fun yarn with some nifty special fx for the time, an absolutely amazing Jerry Goldsmith score, and a compelling role for John Lone, who steals the show as bad guy Shiwan Khan. Had he come along at a time when Hollywood made more of an effort to find decent parts for Asian actors, he might have become a huge star – although this, YEAR OF THE DRAGON, THE LAST EMPEROR and THE HUNTED are all good showcases for him.

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Alec Baldwin does well in the lead, although some of his line readings are weird – like he’s going for a camp portrayal that doesn’t mesh with the rest of the film. Penelope Ann Miller is gorgeous as the love interest, Margo Lane (I had a huge crush on her as a kid), while Tim Curry chews scenery. And guess who plays Margo’s dad? None other than Ian McKellen, doing a paycheck gig in an early Hollywood film.

No, I was very nervous about that because I was -- what’s she called? Ann Miller, something Ann Miller, young girl… Penelope Ann Miller! Well, she was American, and I had to try and be American, and it just never works for me. But I was also with Tim Curry in “Old Maids,” and that was good fun, and a very, very nice director (Russell Mulcahy), and they had these wonderful sets. That was the thrilling thing about it, wonderful sets. It was a big Hollywood movie, you know, we filmed it, we were out on the streets of downtown L.A. Thrilling, thrilling, absolutely. – Ian McKellen Interview 

BEST SCENE: After a goofy prelude sets-up Baldwin as a Chinese warlord (really), the movie jumps ahead several years to his re-emergence in 1930’s New York, opening with a stylish, creepy battle with some gangsters trying to kill a witness, who The Shadow then recruits for his underground network of agents. My only issue: the make-up job on The Shadow is weird, making Baldwin look more like one of his brothers. If it was made now, there’s no way they would have allowed Baldwin to look that way – it’s too distracting if you spend the whole film wondering whether that’s actually him under the makeup or not.

SEE IT: THE SHADOW was recently re-released on Blu-Ray in a terrific special edition by Shout Factory, which gives the movie the ace digital upgrade it always deserved.

PARTING SHOT: While a flawed movie, THE SHADOW is good, pulpy fun. It’s a real shame Baldwin wasn’t allowed to continue in the role, as subsequent installments might have done a better job at exploring the mythology of the character, and maybe would have fixed some of the not-so-great bits here. Oh well. THE SHADOW remains a terrific, throwback actioner and a nice undiscovered gem for fans.

Source: JoBlo.com



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