Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – the screen career of The Shadow.

My notes on the screen incarnations of the pulp character the Shadow.

NB: spoilery – though the whodunit aspects of these films aren’t likely to surprise many.  After all, the Shadow knew … and audiences tended to pick up on that as well.

The Shadow Strikes (1937)

In some perverse manner, Hollywood used to presume the weirder aspects of characters well-established in other media were actually hindrances to their appeal rather than the root of it.  By 1937, the Shadow existed as two distinct, related franchises on radio (famously played by Orson Welles, who knew what evil lurked in the hearts of men) and pulp magazines (written by Walter Gibson under the ‘Maxwell Grant’ house name).  Between them, these Shadows had the power to cloud men’s minds, become invisible (or sport a sinister get-up), battle diabolic masterminds and use magical abilities – but this first stab at a screen Shadow (albeit based on a Gibson story ‘The Ghost of the Manor’) is just a wealthy busybody who sometimes pretends to be other folks to meddle in mystery-solving and crime-thwarting.  Imagine if nine out of ten Batman movies had Bruce Wayne in a business suit handling high society crime investigations like Philo Vance – which, given how long the character has been around, some comic book will have done at some point, as a novelty.

Early on, it’s established that ‘the Shadow’ already has a reputation and we see Lamont Granston (Rod LaRocque) skulking in a slouch hat and black cloak, but the approximate costume is swiftly ditched as Granston (not ‘Cranston’) simply pretends to be a lawyer while the real man is on holiday (admittedly, this was the magazine Shadow’s MO – he wasn’t really Lamont Cranston, but Kent Allard using his friend’s identity while the globetrotting millionaire socialite was out of town) so he can hang out with the suspects as a not-very-mystifying plot is played out.  Here, we meet the Shadow when he’s being shadowy, apprehending some safecrackers out to filch papers from a lawyer’s safe on behalf of casino operator Brossett (Cy Kendall) but gets bounced into the main mystery because he pretends to be lawyer Chester Randall when Captain Breen (Kenneth Harlan) shows up and has to take a call from client Caleb Delthern (John St Polis), who needs his will redrawn immediately.  As is often the way with wealthy folks who take a notion to disinherit their heirs in the middle of the night, and with the supposed super sleuth standing right next to him, Caleb gets shot dead … and Granston-Shadow-Randall (also, sometimes, Harris) has to hang about and determine which of the family or their hangers-on is responsible, with (of course) the primary heir shotgunned so a bigger portion goes to the next in line.

In a development that suggests contempt on the part of screenwriters Al Martin and Rex Taylor, the culprit turns out to be the Delthern butler Wellington (Wilson Benge), who gasps out his not-even-hinted-at-motive as he dies (the new will would cut out a niece if she married the butler’s unacknowledged son).  LaRocque, who returned as Granston in the even-less-Shadowy International Crime a year later, comes on as a low-rent, slightly tubby William Powell, and seems more dilettante than crusader.  He had a comedy idiot valet, Hendricks (Norman Ainsley), who adds little to the team, and half-heartedly solves the mystery though his real target seems to be racketeer Brossett.  Early on, Granston fondles the bullet the killed his crusading lawyer father and motivated his vigilantism – NB: this was two years before Batman’s origin story – and later gets a Brossett bullet for comparison, hinting that the unsolved case will get cleared up or that we’ll have a dangling plot arc for the next film … but it’s neither confirmed nor denied that Granston Senior was gunned by the greasy hood.

The performances are noncommittal and makeshift, with Kendall’s agreeably plump and slimy Capone type probably giving the best showing.  Directed by Lynn Shores, who would do better by Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum.


International Crime (1938)

Grand National Pictures – a cheapo outfit who have a lovely art deco clock logo, at least – had the rights to Street & Smith’s Shadow, and made two films starring Rod La Rocque as a crime-fighter related to the Shadow of the pulps and the Shadow of the radio but significantly different from either.  Indeed, La Rocque’s ‘Lamont Granston’ of The Shadow Strikes and his Lamont Cranston in this follow-up are significantly different from each other – as if the studio were trying out ‘pilots’ for their own series, but decided things were a wash after two misses.  To be fair, this approach had been taken successfully at least twice in other media – the Shadow began as a mysterious radio host, and was developed as a relatively fresh character in the magazine and wireless franchises.  In The Shadow Strikes, Granston (briefly) got into the hat/cape/scarf outfit but was mostly an amateur busybody solving a murder in an old dark house full of grasping heirs.  Here, he’s a radio gossip criminologist and newspaper columnist on the Walter Winchell pattern, antagonising Commissioner Weston (Thomas Jackson), placating editor Heath (Oscar O’Shea), bantering with inept gal Friday Phoebe Lane (Astrid Allwyn), and working with cabbie Moe (Lew Hearn) and other potential series sidekicks.  Some of these characters are adapted from the pulps, but made more conventional: the attractive Allwyn is stuck with the mostly annoying role of Phoebe Lane – a publisher’s niece who wants to get out of the ‘babies and biscuits’ end of the paper biz and onto the crime beat, but keeps making idiot blunders that protract the plot (Margo Lane was the Shadow’s radio sidekick/confidante/girlfriend).

The set-up is workably complex as a foreign baddie (Wilhelm von Brincken) slips Phoebe a tip about a theatre hold-up that Cranston puts on the air, diverting the police downtown when the real crime is taking place in a mansion where a financier is killed by an explosion that seems to be down to a safe-cracking gone wrong.  Honest John (William Pawley), just released master cracksman, is annoyed to be associated with such a sloppy job, and Cranston realises it’s murder … though his rash on-air pronouncements alienate and annoy the police, gun-wielding crooks, his own boss, the dead man’s family and presumably the copy-setters who keep having to run retractions.  The script – Theodore A. Tinsley, Jack Natteford, John W. Kraft – self-destructs, as an interesting series of murders of bankers in three countries – more to do with politics than crime – is only exposed through such silliness as a nightclub spree (one of those montages of neon signs, floorshow stock footage and extras having fun without any pricey new shots of the principles at multiple locations) whereby Lamont and Phoebe hit the sorts of spots were exiled Viennese might relax after a hard day’s international crime and hit on the baddies within a few minutes’ screen time.

Cranston puts in a monocle and does an accent to pose as a Baron (La Rocque has a routine with foreign accents) and approach the villains undercover, but Phoebe – who knows the main villain knows her by sight – blows his cover by joining them at their table for no good reason.  Through other contrivances, the scheme is uncovered and the villains nabbed, and Cranston broadcasts self-congratulatory guff … though when Phoebe gets her on-air shot, she’s tongue-tied.  The ‘Shadow’ column does bear an image of the pulp character (also seen in a framed illustration on the office wall) and there’s a bit of self-reflexivity about his catchphrase when Cranston is temporarily stumped during the investigation and has to admit ‘yes, the Shadow doesn’t know.’  But if ‘the Shadow knows’ and all the business associated with the character – clouding men’s minds, etc – was familiar enough to audiences for this film to do jokes about it, then why didn’t Grand National go the obvious route and make a straight-up Shadow movie?  I guess we’ll never know.  Directed briskly but with not much atmos by Charles Lamont, who later had Abbott and Costello meet several distinguished folks – the Invisible Man, Jekyll & Hyde, the Mummy and Captain Kidd.


The Shadow (1940)

‘Trying to kill me with bullets is a waste of time!’

In the 1930s, the Shadow evolved in several media – originally, a radio host like the Whistler or the Man in Black, who introduced standalone mystery stories, he got a distinctive look – hawk-nosed, slouch-hatted,cloaked, scarf-masked – on the cover of a magazine published to tie in with the radio show.  Then, the series shifted,with Orson Welles taking over the role, and the Shadow became a crime-fighting man of mystery with multiple identities.  Welles, of course, wasn’t lean and hawk-nosed, but perennial screen baddie Victor Jory (Gone With the Wind) was so like the magazine illustrations that he landed a rare good guy role in this breezy fifteen-chapter serial version of the hero’s adventures.  The mysticism Welles brought – including the power to cloud men’s minds and seem invisible – is absent (here, it’s the villain who fakes invisibility) and the Shadow’s double life as masked mystery man and science-minded industrialist Lamont Cranston makes him more like the Batman or Green Hornet.  He also has a third face as Chinese criminal Lin Chang, which means a fairly excruciating ethnic accent.

‘Ah, there’s no limit to the Black Tiger’s deviltry!’

In typical serial fashion, the city is being menaced by ‘the Black Tiger’, a mastermind who naturally turns out in the last chapter to be one of a committee of concerned citizens who meet at the Cobalt Club and worry about the crime wave and how it affects their businesses.  In an impressive sequence, diluted by its repetition in most episodes, the Black Tiger appears in silhouette in a column of smoke and fades out – the column then advances through a darkened room to sit behind a Mabuse-like desk full of impressive but purposeless gadgets which light up, bang a gavel and then issue instructions in a mocking, rasping voice through the smoking mouth of a tiger’s head.  By contrast, the Shadow – with his sinister laugh and villain-look outfit – is comparatively undramatic.  Jory gets to be charming and smile a lot in his Cranston persona (a smiling Jory looks somehow wrong) but Veda Ann Borg and Roger Moore (not that one) get little to do beyond falling into traps as Cranston’s sidekicks gal Friday Margo Lane and cabbie Harry Vincent.  The plot involves explosive bulbs, a plane-downing ray, a ray-nullifying ray, a lot of gadgets that don’t do what they pretend to, and the regulation bunch of hat-wearing goons carrying out the bidding of their wicked  master.  Scripted by Joseph O’Donnell, Ned Dandy and Joseph Poland, working from the version of the character created by Walter B. Gibson (writing as Maxwell Grant).  Directed by James W. Horne.


The Shadow Returns (1946)

Back in the 1940s, media conglomerates like Street & Smith entrusted their most valuable IP to the equivalents of the Asylum or Troma, because the majors who now make superhero pulp blockbusters thought this stuff was beneath them.  This is the first of three movies based on a fusion of the radio and magazine Shadow, produced by the Poverty Row Monogram studios.  This at least makes a fair stab at coming up with a distinctive movie version of the Shadow.  Here, Lamont Cranston (Kane Richmond) is ostensibly a high society busybody along the lines of Philo Vance, and nephew to police commissioner Weston (Pierre Watkin, Perry White in the 1948 Superman serial) – using this connection to loiter around official investigations with his gal Friday Margo Lane (Barbara Reed), who is as keen on giving up independence and getting married as Lois Lane would be in the 1950s, and not-that-funny comedy relief taxi driver Shrevvie (Tom Dugan).  In this persona, Cranston irritates official copper Inspector Cardona (Joseph Crehan), but he sometimes puts on slouch hat, mask, and cloaklike coat to present as a deep-voiced, gun-pointing shadow to intimidate or investigate.  Director Phil Rosen frames these set-ups interestingly, as villains cringe away from the Shadow’s shadow.

The script by George Callahan pulls Cranston and Margo off an evening of clubbing to attend an exhumation (which we don’t see – chiz) that’s followed by a bearded character who’s supposed to be science genius Yomans fleeing with a bunch of gems that were hidden in the coffin and entering a mansion where a bunch of suspects are gathered and claim they saw no one come in.  The cops and Cranston’s crew barge in, and we meet the shady crew – an ex-mobster (Lester Dorr), an ex-showgirl (Rebel Randall), a gem importer (Robert Emmett Keane), a butler (Cyril Delevanti), a distracted rich guy (Frank Reicher) and a middle-aged bland male secretary (Sherry Hall) who mentions he was hired in Australia (the only distinguishing clue allotted to the shallow suspect pool, tagging him as the culprit even though he’s been picked out at random).  There’s some modest ingenuity about the mcguffins – the jewels turn out to be an extra-hard plastic worthless as gems but fortune-making as a manufacturing substance, and the formula for the stuff is hidden in microfilm secreted in steel capsules inside the gems – but the regular deaths involve a typical B mystery cheat.  Several characters happen to be on balconies or on the top of stairs and appear to commit suicide – but when Cranston explains it at the end, it’s the first time he mentions the rope-like burns on their wrists that’s the clue which tells him a bullwhip (common in Australia, don’t you know?) was the murder method (a fly-fishing line would have been cooler, somehow).

Richmond has a secret identity type name (Marvel would later feature characters called Dane Whitman and Kyle Richmond) and a CV studded with comic strip heroes in serials (Spy Smasher, Brick Bradford).  He’s an okay lead, and the fact he underdoes the irritating foppishness Cranston uses as a pose is probably all for the best, but his stooges all wear their comedy stuff thin (Reed and Dugan are forever blundering into things, falling over or doing schtick about marriage or malapropism).  One neat innovation is a wrapping-things-up session where Cranston explains the solutions to a couple of mysteries in such a way that it seems Cardona has really solved the case.   ‘Let me see if I’ve got this straight,’ he says before demonstrating how Yomans – actually someone else in a beard, since the hapless inventor later turns up dead in Cranston’s cab – did his disappearing act.


Behind the Mask (1946)

Weirdly, the second Monogram Shadow movie – the title card reads The Shadow in Behind the Mask – opens with a terrific, inventive, noirish sequence that, until someone offhandedly mentions that Lamont Cranston is having a party this evening to celebrate his wedding tomorrow, makes you think the wrong reel has been spliced after the credits.  Then, sadly, it all falls apart – and the rest of the movie is pretty painful.

The earlier International Crime made Cranston into one of those Walter Winchell-inspired crime columnists who turned up in a lot of noirs (cf: Laura, Whistling in the Dark, The Unsuspected) – here, the destined-to-be-killed victim who spends the opening scenes establishing how many folks have a motive to bump him off is a similar type, columnist Jeff Mann (James Cardwell), who is introduced on a wet street under a neon nightclub sign smooching with and snarling at a showgirl (we infer) he’s shaking down for $200 and lifting a stiletto from her evening dress (we never see this suspect again or learn her story).  Then, he tours nightspots and extorts protection money from Marty Greene (Lou Crosby), who runs a clipjoint where blackmailable suckers are photographed in clinches with the hostess, and Mae Bishop (Marjorie Hoshelle), whose nightclub is a front for an off-track betting parlour using jukeboxes and phone gals to place bets (this set-up and this character – a femme crime boss – are interesting and unusual).  Jeff gets to his office and is killed by a figure in a black mask, hat and coat whose silhouette is spotted on a window – smartly, his get-up isn’t exactly like the one Kane Richmond’s Cranston sports as the Shadow but is close enough for the frame to hang.

Then, we get to the party and a bunch of regular and new characters doing lame wisecracks and schtick – Margo (Barbara Read) is now a jealous shrew and Shrevvie (George Chandler – even less funny than Tom Dugan) has his own brassy, nagging girlfriend Jennie (Dorothea Kent) to give him a hard time.  Part of the wedding bells deal is that Cranston gives up being the Shadow – some hope! – but naturally he has to go into action to clear his name.  For bizarre reasons, Margo dresses up as the Shadow before Cranston does – though only to do slapstick (including a literal baggy pants joke) and get socked in the mask repeatedly.  We get that old bit about victims who seem to have died natural deaths, but have actually been injected with air bubbles – William S. Burroughs, who knew a thing or two about syringes, says this is the bunkum – though there’s no reason they couldn’t just have been slugged or shot.

An additional victim is an unseen cop in an alley the bogus Shadow escaped through – though, in the climax, he’s forgotten as Cranston concludes that the culprit, a one-scene character who is at once marginal to the story and the obvious killer, didn’t flee down that alley but doubled back along the fire escape to his own office (where his psuedo-Shadow gear and sundry other evidence is on plain view).  So who killed the cop?  Screenwriters Arthur Hoerl and George Callahan don’t care, and most audiences will be too busy cringing at all the knockabout – including comedy drunk acts and that infallibly not-hilarious thing of grown men putting grown women across their knees and spanking them (the fade-out has Lamont and Shrevvie merrily paddling their squealing girlfriends).  Again, there’s an almost clever bit as Cranston leads Inspector Cardona (Joseph Crehan) through a mystery solution while posing as a helpful bystander and convincing the cop that he’s coming to the right conclusions by himself – but it comes after agonising stretches of knockabout farce.  Perhaps in a nod to the serial version of the Shadow and Richmond’s track record in that field, there is one serial-style drag-down, swinging-on-chains, knockabout fight scene as the Shadow tackles a bunch of Mae’s goons in the stereotype warehouse setting.  Directed by Phil Karlson – and, possibly, William Beaudine.


The Missing Lady (1946)

As with the 1930s Shadow features, the three-film Monogram series with Kane Richmond tried to settle on a formula but never quite got there – which may be why the pulp/radio hero’s screen career didn’t settle in for as long a run as, say, Charlie Chan’s or Tarzan’s.  Unusually, this third and final entry is the best of the batch .  The whodunit element is random and minor, the missing lady (a jade statuette) is in the only place it possibly could be given a bit of irrelevant conversation about grandfather’s ashes , and one of the running jokes (people assuming the case is about a kidnapped woman not a valuable mcguffin) is annoying.  But director Phil Karlson (who’d go from series stuff to hard-hitting pictures like The Phenix City Story and Walking Tall) picks up on what worked in the first ten minutes of Behind the Mask and runs with it – showing film noir chops in a lot of low-budget shadows, with neon signs and an unseen el train scattering light on cringing lowlifes, and managing to make the bludgeonings and menacings and third degree interrogations seem properly brutal.  Best of all, the comedy relief is minimised – James Flavin comes in as the Cranston-hating Inspector Cardona (replacing Joseph Crehan) and overdoes it, but Barbara Read and Dorothea Kent tone down the nitwittery and even get (miraculously) a disguise scene that’s reasonably amusing (Jennie teaches Margo how to walk like a B-girl when they dress up to work in a clipjoint) and much-improved dialogue.

In Behind the Mask, which is back-referenced in dialogue, the Shadow was suspected of murder and Cranston had to clear him … here, it’s the other way round, and Cranston keeps getting sapped and waking up with a murder weapon at hand and a corpse nearby.  Given that the movies decided that, outside of the Victor Jory serial, they didn’t want to model the Shadow too closely on versions from other media, each film seems to struggle to find a way of presenting the hero, borrowing from peers.  A few elements of the Monogram Shadow (wanted by the cops, accompanied by chauffeur, facemask and hat) seem to come from the Green Hornet, which is kind of like giving Batman X-ray vision and a red cape.  This Cranston, nephew of police Commissioner Weston (Pierre Watkin), started out as Philo Vance with a secret identity, and is still an upscale busybody – but here he acts like a PI in the Spade or Marlowe mode, with the jade doodad obviously a riff on the Maltese Falcon, a tendency to get knocked out (superimposed whirlpool) or beaten up (by cops and crooks – including a neat bit as one thug keeps knocking his hat off and another keeps telling him to pick it up and put it on), and a halfway decent line in tough talk.  He even gets a decent introductory scene – in disguise as an unshaven bum in a flophouse, a Holmes trick from ‘The Man With the Twisted Lip’ – and the Shadow, who doesn’t get enough to do in the film, is shown only as a shadow cast on handy white walls (in one striking shot, he seems to walk down a staircase as a disembodied silhouette).

Regular screenwriter George Callahan peoples the plot with shady noir types, each with enough individuality to differentiate them from their models – Ox Walsh (Jack Overman) is Moose Malloy without a heart, a murdering hulk out for revenge (and to get back the statue he killed for), and Rose Dawson (Claire Carleton) is a femme fatale fixer who puts the weathy Cranston in his place when he tries to get her to go against her underworld associates (‘I have to live here’).  There’s a weird bit about two daffy spinsters (Arsenic and Old Lace inspired?) – Miss Effie (Almira Sessions), Miss Millie (Nora Cecil) – who have bought the apartment building Cranston and several victims and sispects live in, and spend their time having races in Upsidaisy and Downsidaisy, the two elevators (I wish they’d turned out to be the killers).  Another odd feature, which evokes The Spirit as much as anything else, is the way the plot is littered with beautiful, shady dames (Jo-Carroll Dennison and Frances Robinson especially) – some of whom are models for a Vargas-like artist and therefore have excuses for dressing provocatively.  And Richmond, tough but vulnerable, smug but self-aware, gives his best showing as Cranston, and even as the Shadow.  An offhand remark about the atomic bomb hints that the world was changing, and the fantasy bubble these pulp characters inhabited about to be burst.


Invisible Avenger (Bourbon Street Shadows) (1958)

In 1954, there was an unsold pilot for The Shadow, with Tom Helmore – who was behind it all in Vertigo – as Lamont Cranston, a psychologist detective who used his radio powers to cloud men’s minds and make himself invisible.  Four years later, another stab at relaunching the vintage pulp/wireless character as a TV prospect was only marginally more successful – it didn’t go to series, but the pilot did get turned into this hour-long, obviously low-budget movie.

It opens with credits over a New Orleans jazz performance that plainly wasn’t originally a titles sequence – I presume a Shadow titles bit was trimmed – and some murky doing with exiled ‘el presidente’ (Dan Mullin), whose twin brother is a minion of the Generalissimo of an oppressed island called Santa Cruz, and the murder of jazzman Tony Alcalde (Steve Dano) while he’s on the phone to Cranston to ask him to call in his pal ‘el Espectro’ (which suggests that El Presidente really wanted Denny Colt or Jim Corrigan and clod Tony got his vigilantes mixed up).  Here, Cranston (Richard Derr) is a man-about-town adventurer accompanied not by Margo Lane or any of his other pulp/radio supporting cast but guru Jogendra (Mark Daniels), who it is implied his schooled him in those Eastern mind-bending techniques (by now, Cranston’s backstory had a Lost Horizon-Dr Strange twist).

Despite location filming in New Orleans, it’s oddly light on anything like atmosphere.  Derr’s good-humoured plank in a lounge suit lacks the mysterioso edge of most versions of the character, and also blithely turns invisible in front of folk while not worried that they’ll twig his secret identity.  The plot involves a trick to lure El Presidente into the open so he can be taken back to Santa Cruz and killed, rather than lead a revolution – but it’s never very involving.  Aside from the elementary invisible man stuff, this is a regular man-of-action story which could as easily have been about the Saint or the Falcon.  Written by Betty Jeffries and George Bellak; directed by James Wong Howe, Ben Parker and John Sledge (presumably this was cut down from three episodes).


… and, for completism’s sake, here’s my Empire review – credited to Jack Yeovil – of the 1994 Russell Mulcahy/Alec Baldwin take on The Shadow.


Here are some of the Shadow’s wireless adventures.

Here’s a handy Shadow wiki.



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