Thursday, August 29, 2013

THE SHADOW STRIKES (1937)

Like the previously-discussed I Love a Mystery, The Shadow was an enormously popular radio series that seemed ripe for the movies. Chronicling the adventures of a mysterious crime-fighter whose real identity was known only to his assistant, the program's catchphrase, "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows..." remained legendary long after its demise.

The same, however, cannot be said about about The Shadow Strikes. (The title made wonder if the movie was about labor trouble among pulp fiction heroes.) Released by the short-lived independent studio Grand National Pictures, it mistakes "convoluted" for "mysterious," a factor typical of B-mysteries of its time. Ten minutes into it, there seemed to be three different plot threads going simultaneously:

1) An attempted burglary at the office of lawyer Chester Randall. 2) The murder of elderly tycoon Caleb Delthern. 3) The possible involvement in one or the other by a gambling boss named Brossett (no first name given). These threads are gradually pulled together with the finesse of a one-armed monkey doing crochet work. I toyed with the idea of actually explaining the story further, but my mind wandered so often that, even when taking notes, I'm unable to come with a cohesive description.

"Yo, it's me -- The Shadow. Wassup?
The script itself seems to have been lying around a Grand National file cabinet when some genius got the idea to make the bland hero into The Shadow. That's the only explanation for two of its most egregious mistakes. First, it completely ignores The Shadow's main skill, that of "clouding men's minds," a trick he picked up from the (of course) mysterious Orient, allowing him to become de facto invisible. In The Shadow Strikes, he depends on a turned-up overcoat collar and slouch hat to disguise himself. Yes, that should do the trick.

From the New York Tymes.
Even more ridiculous is that the picture doesn't even get his real name right. In the radio series (and, previously, short stories), he's Lamont Cranston. Until the very end of The Shadow Strikes, he's pretending to be a lawyer named Chester Randall. That is, when he's not pretending to be Randall's assistant Mr. Harris. It's only in the final minute we hear the name "Lamont Cranston" spoken. Except in the credits -- and a newspaper clipping -- his last name is spelled with a "G" instead of a "C." Was anyone at Grand National sober when The Shadow Strikes was in production? And I'm not even mentioning having a British servant named Hendricks instead of a woman named Margo Lane as his sidekick. Well, yes I am mentioning it, so scratch that.

Anybody ever hear of casual Fridays
around here?
The Shadow Strikes is loaded with the usual business you find in B-mysteries. Pistols are handily available in the top drawer of every desk in town. Cops need the most obvious advice from a lawyer to do their jobs -- like running ballistic tests on aforementioned pistols. When approached by a bad guy with a gun, a woman asks, "What's the meaning of this?" (Would that be your first question in such a predicament?) Exterior nighttime shots are filmed in broad daylight. Rich people hang around the house in tuxes, silk gowns or silk robes and ascots. Cops openly insult everyone in earshot (the police captain refers to Cranston's assistant as "that pelican-faced stooge of yours," which I'm looking forward to
A shadow does not The Shadow make.
using in conversation one day.) Allegedly snappy dialogue which falls with delicacy of a marble coffee table. (Man to girlfriend following a disagreement: "I suppose after we're married, we'll live scrappily ever after.") A bugging device features a microphone in an office and the headphones three stories down in a car; because the car drives around with the device intact, the cord is apparently 20 miles long. Thank God the NSA figured out that little problem.
The Shadow Strikes is also rich with actors you wouldn't recognize if your life depended on it. The title character is portrayed by the man with a name straight out of (porn) movies, Rod La Rocque (real name: Roderick La Rocque de la Rou). Once a leading man in silents, La Rocque was by now -- stop me if you've heard this before -- slumming in movies like Beau Bandit and Hi, Gaucho! (In between, he sailed to Germany to star in S.O.S. Iceberg for Hitler's favorite director, Leni Riefenstahl.) La Rocque's delivery in The Shadow Strikes, often casual to the point of sounding improvised, falls somewhere between Bob Hope and Edward Everett Horton. Except when he's in disguise as The Shadow. Then he speaks like Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants. Some hero. (You think that sounds strange. Co-star Bill Kellogg looks like a cross between a young Humphrey Bogart and Ron Mael from the band Sparks.) Like people in general back then, La Rocque looks a good decade older than his 39 years (unless he fudged his birthdate). He sure was popular in his day, though: when he married actress Vilma Banky in 1927, 2,000 people attended the wedding reception. Pity the caterer!



I couldn't find a photo of co-star Bill Kellogg,
so just combine these two photos in your head and you'll get an idea of what he looks like. In a word, wow.




The studio that released The Shadow Strikes, Grand National, is marginally more interesting than the movie itself. Created in 1936 as just another low-budget indie, it had a shot at the big time when signing James Cagney -- currently on strike from Warner Bros. -- to appear in two movies, Tough Guy (guaranteed to be the only drama about the thrilling adventures of an agent from the Bureau of Weights & Measures) and the so-so musical Something to Sing About. Despite Cagney's star power, the movies can't disguise their humble origins. Once Warners ordered Cagney back to work or else, it was only a matter of time before Grand National folded -- 1939, to be precise. Appropriately, PRC took over the studio complex. (Notice how everything comes back to PRC?) Grand National's art deco logo, featuring a giant clock whose sweeping hands reveal the studio name, still looks cool, though.

"Anybody know the wind chill factor
in here?"
As with way too many Hollywood pictures then and now, The Shadow Strikes is a missed opportunity. As portrayed by several actors over the years (including 22 year-old Orson Welles), the radio version of The Shadow was a genuinely eerie ghost-like figure who appears out of nowhere to investigate a crime before vanishing when his job is finished. The guy here just goes into his coat closet to grab an alleged disguise that wouldn't look out of place on a winter's day in Plattsburgh. That the writers decided to drop the whole clouding of men's mind routine -- the one factor that set him apart from other crime-fighting heroes -- is major mistake. Unless they mean clouding men's minds with excess characters, tedious dialogue and confusing plot points. 

"Hey, you really are the killer!"
However... the whole experience of making it through the 61 minutes it takes to watch The Shadow Strikes was worth it just to witness what may or may not be the birth of the most famous cliche in the annals of murder mysteries. After going through an endless parade of suspects, from the victim's son to his daughter's boyfriend to the guy who runs an illegal gambling parlor, we finally learn -- yes -- the butler did it. Who knew what evil lurked in the hearts of the hired help?

                                                 *********************



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