This is, by most conventional measures, a total mess of a movie. The thing is, though, it is just CRAZY FUN, and what it loses through a general narrative mess and horrible ending it makes up for through wonderful performances, a script with a great sense of humor, beautifully lush production design, and a sincere wish to show you a really good time.
The disc begins and--WHAT?! Fullscreen? Eeeew. But yes, this film is only available on disc in moron-friendly fullscreen. Anyway, we have this short credit sequence in which the word "shadow" slowly floats across the screen while we hear the theme and this "doooOOOO" sound that accompanies every instance of "shadowness" in the movie and... I don't know why I find these credits so compelling, but I do. I watched them about five times while I had this disc. Then--TIBET! Alec Baldwin as New York rich kid Lamont Cranston has gone to Tibet [this is all in the 1930s] and become a feared and evil marauder in the opium trade, and has supposedly done all these awful things. We see him execute his loyal servant while on a throne with long hair and long Lee press-on nails. Then one night he's kidnapped and brought to the Tulku, this badass monk who is going to forcibly redeem Lamont, teach him all these crazy powers, then force him to fight crime as part of his enduring penance for being such a bastard. Yes, it's basically the same story as Batman Begins. The Tulku teaches him to essentially hypnotize people to get them to do what he wants, including to make himself invisible not by being invisible, but hypnotizing them so they don't see him. We then get a title that tells us Lamont was trained and returned home to fight crime in New York City.
Now, all of that was eight minutes at the most and--a LOT to take in for just eight minutes, right? That's part of what makes this film seem so bad is that at times it's just a narrative salad. But I'm gonna tell you right now, folks: it ain't Lawrence of Arabia. Also, WHAT a fucked-up story! Rich white boy turned Tibetan marauder? Forcibly redeemed and sent to fight crime? THIS kind of shit made sense in the 30s? You kind of have to love the general loopiness of it all, and you REALLY have to love that this movie went for it, preserving its origins without trying to update it too much or make it overly "cool." A large part, most likely, of why it was such a box office failure. It's kind of proudly goofy.
Anyway, we now move into our introductory action sequence, in which some mafia types have a witness whose feet are in a block of cement [fun!] and they're gonna heave him over the bridge, when they start hearing The Shadow's maniacal laugh [difficult to pull off, in any context], and eventually we see his appearing long enough to beat them up, finally sending them off. Then he rescues the guy and gives him a special ring--which means he now becomes a servant of The Shadow, his network of helpers made up of people whose lives he's saved. Then--to the Cobalt Club!
As he pulls up outside we're seeing these really fun 1930's New York backdrops and matte paintings that made me think that this effortlessly conveys the beauty of the era in the self-consciously stylized way that Dick Tracy tried so hard to do. Lamont comes in and Baldwin gets his glamour shot, the first real introduction of Cranston in the movie, whereupon he goes to meet his uncle, the chief of police played by the ever-delightful Jonathan Winters. They have some amusing banter in which we sense that Baldwin has both the look and tone of this 30s playboy down cold, then Penelope Ann Miller as Margo Lane saunters in. The first time I saw this I thought she was just godawful, but I have since come to really like her loopy delivery in this and things like the otherwise atrocious Victor/Victoria. Lamont suavely introduces himself, and they hit it off, but he has to get some distance fast once he realizes that she's psychic, which means that theres some danger she could blow his cover. By the by, he was named Margo Lane becaue there was originally some thought that her character might later be said to be the sister of Lois Lane.
So after introducing then unknown [in this country] Ian McKellen as her nutty professor dad, and Tim Curry as his slimy assistant who is in love with Margo, we move over to the arrival of our villain. He comes in the form of John Lone [best known as the transgender lover from M. Butterfly] as Shiwan Khan, last descendant of Gengis Khan, and ready to conquer the world or whatever. He also has the ability to hypnotize people, which he often uses to get people to commit suicide, which is the one trace of ugliness I could really do without. Otherwise the movie is quite genial and good-natured.
So here comes one of the best little touches of the movie, and it's entirely icing on the cake--meaning they didn't HAVE to include it, but they did, and it buys a great deal of goodwill. A cop who is among The Shadow's network of spies informs him of Khan's arrival. He goes to a secret office and writes a note, puts it in a container and it gets shot through a pneumatic tube [like those things they used to have at some banks that would shoot a canister through this tube and that were ALWAYS COOL]. We then have a lovely sequence as we follow the tube though this pipe all around the tops of these wonderful 1930s New York skyscraper models [super-duper fun] until it finally arrives at the secret office of this guy who speaks into a early videophone with an expanding steel eye like Batgirl used to have, then sends a signal that lights up Lamant's secret Shadow ring. Fun! The final icing on the cake is when Lamont opens the door to his secret lair, the Sanctum, and the camera holds for just a touch longer than it needs to on the huge array of gears and chains that open and close the door. It is these touches that add such character to the movie and go far to make up for its deficiencies in storytelling.
So The Shadow has a refined Batcave-type thing with books, drinks and a fireplace. He's not there long before he realizes Khan is present, and they have a bit of banter before Lamont asks "So what brings you to the Big Apple?" Khan thinks that Lamont's old marauder self should let himself out again and help him conquer humanity. Right in the middle of this conversation about the violent overthrow of mankind, Khan admires Lamont's tie. "Brooks Brothers," Lamont says "Is that Midtown?" Khan asks. "45th and Madison," Lamont responds. "YOU are a barbarian." This exchange is meant to rib on the product placement that [apparently] used to be present in the radio show, but it's also when you start to realize that this movie isn't afraid to stop everything just to make a joke. And it calls on Baldwin's impeccable comic delivery, which thankfully has finally been recognized on 30 Rock. Anyway, Khan leaves a coin, Lamont has it analyzed, and starts to figure out what his plan is.
Now here's a short scene that demonstrates a lot about this movie. Khan is kneeling on a floor with an inlaid pattern, and as he rises, we realize that his robe has the same pattern, and there's a cool analog visual effect as the pattern of the floor starts to warp and wrinkle. The camera tilts up to reveal a bunch of other Tibetan warriors, and this demonstrates the choppy, erratic storytelling of the film: this is the film's way of telling us that Khan is building an army. Just this one shot, no context, no nothing, then back to your story in progress.
SPOILERS [NOT REALLY] > > >
So the plan is that Khan is going to build the world's first atom bomb. For this he requires the scientific work of McKellen and Curry, both of whom he handily hypnotizes through the interface of a billboard that blows smoke rings. The billboard says "I'd climb a mountain for a Llama," which is a reference to the famous real billboard from old Times Square that blew smoke rings and said "I'd walk a mile for a Camel." Anyway, Margo also gets hypnotized, and tasked with killing The Shadow. When she tries to kill Lamont, his identity is revealed. The movie has conveniently skated over the fact that Lamont's mind tricks do NOT work on Margo, while Khan's apparently do. Well whatever.
Anyway, another comic scene in which Lamont meets Khan at a Chinatown restaurant. This is one of of my favorite little bits: Khan is complaining about American arrogance and Lamont says "Ay! Now that's the US of A you're talkin' bout there, pal!" They they both shoot at each other and their bullets strike each other and drop, just like in Bugs Bunny, while you [might be] realizing that this movie is delightfully unafraid to be totally goofy. Previously I had thought that John Lone was somewhat lacking in the role [hard to see him first in M. Butterfly, then this], but on this viewing he struck me as pitch-perfect in his over-the-top way and I found him hilarious.
Blah, blah, Lamont returns home and in the morning, he and Margo have one of the exchages people remember from this movie when she says "I had the most wonderful dream" about lying on a beach with the sun caressing her body, and he responds "I had a dream I ripped off my face and was somebody else underneath." The scene goes on with a lot more fun banter that has the distinction of not insulting your intelligence, as with most times when a contemporary screenwriter tries to approximate the "fun banter" of earlier eras.
Anyway, after some more hijinx, Lamont realizes that Khan's hideout is a grand hotel right in the middle of the city--only he has hypnotized the entire city so they don't see it there. He goes inside, the movie takes time out for a beautiful Shadow icon shot, and then we get to admire of of the gorgeous and extravagant deco sets the movie has made for The Shadow's confrontation with Curry. Upstairs The Shadow tangles with Khan and there's this whole thing with a spiritual knife [don't ask] and suddenly Khan's hypnosis over everyone is lifted. Director Mulcahy [who is best known for directing Highlander] proves once again that he loves huge blocks of glass windows all shattering at once.
After some slapstick with Margo and her father, we come to the botched conclusion. Now I don't know what the exact story is, but something went wrong with the ending and they didn't have the budget for what they wanted, or something, so you have this pretty cruddy ending. They somehow end up downstairs in this hall of mirrors [you know the hall of mirrors all luxury hotels have in the basement] and The Shadow uses his mind powers to shatter all the mirrors, shooting shards of broken glass all around them! ...Which, it seems, are virtually harmless, as we have a shot of Lone looking around in wonder amongst hundreds of flying, razor-sharp shards, none of which cause the slightest bit of damage. Then The Shadow shoots one particular piece into his brain, and that's it. We have a little wrap-up with Margo and the credits play as we hear the rock theme song, "Original Sin," by Taylor Dayne, of all people.
< < < SPOILERS END
Like I said, it's definitely kind of an awful film, but very good-natired and a whole lot of fun. Anyone looking for a great, or even decent, story are going to be disappointed, but it makes up for that in it's wonderful evocation of 30s New York and machine-age production design, as well as the sense of fun and humor of the script, and the fact that many of the actors are perfectly matched to their roles and really seem to be in on the joke.
Among the problems is that it's just not built for its intended audience, 14-year-old boys. As I said it makes little effort to be cool, and most of its attributes are things that would appeal to an older audience, like the winking script and production design. The problem is, it doesn't have much of a story for them [and what it does have is extremely ungainly], so it ends up kind of being a movie for nobody.
Still, a very fun movie for nobody, and if the whole doesn't equal the sum of its parts, well, dang if those parts don't have a lot to recommend themselves on their own.
When you're in the mood for silly fun that'll leave a smile on your face.