Movie Review: The Shadow (1940)
How many movies give their superhero’s superpower to the supervillain?
In the pulps, and on the radio, the Shadow could “cloak men’s minds” as to appear invisible. Here, that power belongs to the Black Tiger, a man intent on bringing the city’s industrial leaders to their collective knees. Oddly, he only displays this power before his flunkies. In an elaborate and oft-repeated sequence, he appears silhouetted in the hallway outside their hideout with a light emanating from above. (In this shot, he has puffy blonde hair parted in the middle and seems less villain than Paul Williams circa 1978.) Then he pulls a switch, there’s a hum, and ... he’s gone! Now invisible, he walks into the hideout, always trailed by this beam of light, sits at his desk, turns on a few gadgets, and, with a plaster black tiger head on the desk flashing its eyes and emanating smoke from its mouth, he berates his men in a tremulous, high-pitched and highly annoying voice.
They never explain how he can do this. It seems a trick of cameras and lighting—a Hollywood trick, you could say—but in that last episode they don’t go into it. Last episodes in serials are rarely for exposition. It might get in the way of the thousandth fistfight.
Since the Black Tiger has invisibility, what superpower does the Shadow have? None. He’s just a dude in a cape and scarf with a maniacal laugh who’s good at fistfights. His signature laugh actually works against him here. In the radio series, it announced his presence but nobody knew where it came from, which is why it was terrifying. It was like he was everywhere. It was like he knew what evil lurked in their hearts! Here, it merely allows the villains to get the drop on him.
That said, Victor Jory makes a pretty good Shadow.
Invisibility > Fisticuffs
Some background. I began collecting comics in the summer of 1973 and a few months later The Shadow made his return in Batman #253. (Batman: “That laugh ... coming from everywhere ... and nowhere!”) He was new to me but a legend to the caped crusader. As they shake hands in the end, Batman even admits, with a nod toward the pulp origins of superheroes, “I’ve never told anyone this ... but you were my biggest inspiration.”
I was inspired as well. My friend Dan and I were busy creating our own series of comic books, Rory Comics, that were mostly derivative of Marvel. Their Falcon became our Eagle (“Rory’s first black superhero!”); their Dr. Strange became our Magus (“Last of the Maji”). And because of Batman #253, as well as the resurrection of “The Shadow” radio series Sunday nights after “American Top 40,” we introduced/stole The Shadow as well. He appeared as the villain in “James Steele: Master Detective” and then was given his own comic:
My Rory Comics ripoff, circa 1977.
Why was I drawn to him—rather than, say, the Lone Ranger, whose radio series was also resurrected Sunday evenings? Was it the Shadow’s invisibility? (E.L. Doctorow is quite good on this.) His ability to see into hearts? To see deeply while remaining unseen? Who wouldn’t want that power?
The Shadow didn’t even start out as a character. He began as the narrator of an early 1930s CBS radio show, “Detective Story,” which was a series of unrelated pulp mysteries held them together by this mysterious narrator. As Raymond W. Stedman writes in his book, “The Serials: Suspense and Drama by Installment”:
The piercing voice, the macabre laugh, the ironic tones brought fan mail that reflected considerably less interest in the story than in the mysterious “Shadow” who told them. Almost overnight two things happened. The radio program evolved into the eerie dramas in which The Shadow was not narrator but principal participant, and Street and Smith introduced this fascinating new character in The Shadow magazine.
So why did Columbia Pictures take away his powers? Apparently they thought kids wanted action they could see. In the minds of the decision-makers, fisticuffs > invisibility.
By this point, the formula for ur-superhero serials was well-established:
- The villain issues orders from behind a desk
- His henchmen go into the world to implement them
- The hero confronts them, is endangered (cliffhanger), but survives and foils the plan
But “The Shadow” also steals from “The Spider’s Web,” a well-regarded Columbia serial from 1938:
- The villain’s identity is hidden
- His scheme is to disrupt big business
- He turns out to be one of the city’s big businessmen
In both serials, the hero has three identities: himself, the masked hero, and a shady underworld figure who learns key info from the bad guys (Blinky McQuade for The Spider; Lin Chang for The Shadow). Both heroes have teams: an assistant (Jackson/Harry Vincent); an exotic assistant (Ram Singh/Wu); and a girl (Nita Van Sloan/Margot Lane).
In both, too, the “next episode” trailer doesn’t exactly milk the cliffhanger. Instead, it gives us next week’s cliffhanger. At the end of Chapter 7, for example, after The Shadow gets into a gunfight behind barrels marked “ACID,” there’s a fire and everyone gets out except The Shadow. He’s standing in the middle of the room when there’s an explosion and the roof caves in. How will he survive?
Here’s what they say about the next chapter:
“Tonight, the Limited [a train] with all aboard will be destroyed. The Shadow tries to prevent the disaster. He reaches the switch, he’s diverting the train, when he’s attacked by the Black Tiger’s Men! He fights them off, throws the switch, and then he’s knocked unconscious in the path of the roaring express. See THE SHADOW RIDES THE RAILS, next week’s brilliant episode of The Shadow!”
They just jump ahead. They assume he survives. Kind of defeats the purpose of the cliffhanger, doesn’t it?
There’s such absurdities throughout. In the second episode, Cranston and Vincent (Roger Moore) follow the bad guys to their hideout outside the A1 Garage Office. Inside, we hear this conversation:
Hood 1: Hey, whaddaya doing?
Hood 2: Wearing masks from now on.
Hood 1: Well, what’s the big idea?
Hood 2: Orders from the Black Tiger. Get ’em on.
Cranston then knocks out a hood and enters the lair with his mask. Five minutes later, after the Black Tiger finds out he's been duped, he tells his flunky, Flint (Jack Ingram), “From now on, no more masks!” Consider it the shortest management innovation in history.
That said, the dumbest guy in the serial has to be Commissioner Weston (Frank LaRue). In the first chapter, he has Cranston drive to his office to show him a card from one of the Black Tiger’s men that says “Cranston Labs, 2:00” on it. What time does he do this? About five minutes before 2:00. Not much time to prepare. He also thinks The Shadow and the Black Tiger are the same person—“without evidence” as we say today. And when Cranston correctly suggests someone close to the business group is the Black Tiger, he waves it away. “We’ve developed something that indicates just the contrary,” he says. The police commissioner is such an idiot that one businessman, Turner (John Paul Jones), actually suspects the commissioner.
Turner is part of one of my favorite goofs in the serial. In chapter 7, the useless, harrumphing businessmen meet again at the Cobalt Club. Two of their own, Prescott and Marshall, have just been kidnapped, but the rest don’t know that. One of them declares, “But what on earth could’ve happened to Prescott and Marshall?” As he's saying it, look across the table at Turner. He’ actually mouthing the line.
I’ve never seen that in a movie before.
As for the identity of the Black Tiger? It’s Marshall. Not that that helps much. The businessmen are all so generic, it’s like “Which one is he again? Oh right. ... I guess.” Shame they didn’t make it more of a whodunit. But that would’ve required time and money. And maybe more talent.
Who knows what evil ... nah, forget it
Beyond the missteps, what did I like? Jory, as mentioned, is good, with a piercing gaze, and physically correct for the role. Philip Ahn provides some quiet dignity as Wu—30 years before he’d do the same as Master Kan on “Kung Fu.” Roger Moore’s Vincent gets in some jokes. Margot Lane is played brusquely by Veda Ann Borg, but she has little-to-no chemistry with Jory. It’s a shocker to find out they’re supposed to be a couple.
By the way: You know what we never hear?
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!
This thing is five hours long, it’s one of the most famous lines in pulpdom, and yet they never use it. That’s pretty much all you need to know about “The Shadow.”
Thanks to Columbia, The Shadow doesn't turn invisible and he doesn't say “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” It's like Superman being grounded and James Bond not saying “Bond. James Bond.”
Superhero/villain ephemera were big back then. Everyone had to have a calling card.
Is it the villainous Black Tiger ... or Paul Williams in concert circa 1978?
Jack Ingram acting with nothing.
Lamont Cranston and Commissioner Weston confer on the case. Weston is about to make his 99th incorrect assumption.
Cranston as Lin Chang; at right is Philip Ahn, better known as the kindly Master Kan on “Kung Fu”—a series that needs to be resurrected. 现在。
Cranston and Margot Lane displaying their usual sexual chemistry.
The businessmen of the Cobalt Club displaying their usual smarts.
The Shadow phones! It's not “Who know what evil...” but it'll have to do. *FIN*