Once upon a time, I made it a point to go to the theater every year to see the latest Woody Allen film. Allen, love him or hate him, is one of the most prolific American filmmakers of all time. He's still cranking out one feature film a year and he's been doing so since the early 1970s. Some have been brilliant, some middling, others, meh. But he's in there pitching each and every year. Gotta give the guy credit for the sheer longevity of his career.
But somewhere along the way I stopped going to the theaters to see the latest Allen film. And it's not because I don't like Woody. He's one of my all time favorite directors. It's just that I quit going to see movies at the theater, period. So, there are several of his more recent films that I have yet to see.
I did, however, go to the theater back in 1991 to see SHADOWS AND FOG. I didn't remember much about it except that it was in black and white and somewhat disappointing. I watched it again the other day for the first time in 26 years and my initial impression was re-confirmed. It's a half-baked mess of a movie, bursting with terrific art direction, sets, costumes and drop-dead gorgeous cinematography by Carlo Di Palma. It has the usual terrific cast of stellar actors and actresses, some in virtually cameo appearances. It looks great, it just doesn't hold together. SHADOWS AND FOG is a film of so many different influences and homages that nothing ever really gels.
Allen stars as Kleinman, a nebbish who gets swept up into a vigilante committee out to find and stop a mysterious strangler that has been terrorizing the city. Kleinman has no idea what part he's supposed to play in all of this and wants no part of whatever is going on but he's caught up in the fever of mob justice. Then there's Irmy (Mia Farrow), a sword swallower at the traveling circus.She catches her clown husband, Paul (John Malkovich), with another woman (Madonna), which leads her to leave the circus and find refuge in a whore house populated by Kathy Bates, Lily Tomlin and Jodie Foster. Kleinman and Irmy's paths eventually cross and they try to help each other out but there's that niggling problem of the strangler and various vigilante mobs that are still roaming the night streets. The situation is resolved by the intervention of circus magician Armstead (Kenneth Mars), who acts as a deus ex machina.
SHADOWS AND FOG is equal parts Franz Kafka, Fritz Lang's M (1931), classic Universal horror films (Donald Pleasence as a doctor would be right at home in a Frankenstein movie), swipes from the German Expressionism cinema of G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau and music (and more) from the works of Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht. In short, it's a mess of a film that tries to walk a balance between humor and horror, belly laughs and existential dread. While there are several very funny scenes in the film the overall effect is off-putting and frustrating.
Allen's reliance on magic, real magic, not stage magic, echoes material in some of his other films such as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S SEX COMEDY (1982), THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985), NEW YORK STORIES (1989), ALICE (1990) and SCOOP (2006) all of which are better films than SHADOWS. Still, I give Allen credit for trying something different. SHADOWS AND FOG will go down as his German Expressionism film, just as INTERIORS (1978) was his Bergman film and STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) was his Fellini movie.
A digression: I wish more contemporary filmmakers would make films in black and white. I love the look and feel of a classic black and white horror film and what would film noir be without b&w? Two of my dream projects would be to see a black and white BATMAN feature film set in the 1940s. Ditto a vintage SHADOW adventure set in the 1930s. The medium could really capture the spirit and vibe of these characters in the eras in which they originally flourished. It will never happen but a guy can dream can't he?
SHADOWS AND FOG is recommended only for those who are already Woody Allen fans. It would be really bothersome to anyone who is neutral or slightly negative about his work.