Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Shadow Returns (Monogram, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was a recent download from Monogram in 1945 called The Shadow Returns, yet another of the surprisingly few and short-lived attempts to turn the legendary crime-fighter of pulp fiction and radio into a movie attraction. There’d been a few Shadow shorts from Universal in the early 1930’s, two films from Grand National in the late 1930’s (a bore called The Shadow Strikes that all too faithfully adapted one of the original Shadow novels by Walter Gibson, a.k.a. “Maxwell Grant,” and a quite charming screwball mystery/comedy that abandoned the character of the Shadow and turned him, played by former silent-screen heartthrob Rod LaRocque, and his on-screen partner Astrid Allwyn into a Nick-and-Nora-ish wisecracking detective couple, and turned the Shadow’s radio show into a late 1930’s version of America’s Most Wanted) and then Monogram decided to take a run at the character in the mid-1940’s, putting the Shadow in the same less-than-capable hands in which they’d entrusted Charlie Chan — director Phil Rosen and screenwriter George Callahan — and making a series of movies that, if this one is any indication, made the Monogram Chans look like thriller masterpieces by comparison.

Though the credits indicate (or at least hint) that George Callahan thought up this story by himself without any reference to something Gibson/“Grant” had published in the pulps, it does have the air of a Gibson story: too many suspects, too few motives, and a complicated curlicue of incidents highlighted by a frankly ridiculous method of murder. The opening shows a corpse being exhumed and some vaguely shiny things being found in a tin box inside the coffin, only one of the exhumers, Yomans (Emmett Vogan), gets away with all but one of the items. The cops think they’re precious jewels but Lamont Cranston, a.k.a. the Shadow (Kane Richmond, who had done some nice serials over at competing third-tier studio Republic but on those at least he’d had capable action directors), managed to palm one and discover what it really was: a key ingredient in a new sort of plastic whose manufacturer concealed the formula in a research notebook by writing well-known formulae but making a deliberate mistake in each one — the idea was that if you collected each of the wrong ingredients you’d have all the stuff you needed to make the super-plastic. The people involved in this project start propelling themselves off balconies, but it turns out — in one of the most preposterous murder methods any fiction writer has asked us to believe — they were really murdered by an expert bullwhipper, who was able to grab them by the ankle with his whip and pull them off the balcony and towards the ground to their death, while anyone watching would simply assume the person had taken a header off the balcony, either accidentally or suicidally.

The Shadow Returns is the sort of movie that starts out as a whodunit and ends up as a whocareswhodunit; there’s only one action scene (a fight in a warehouse owned by one of the baddies, a guy named “Frobay” — through much of the movie I kept thinking they were saying “Probate”), and even that is bumbled so it’s as boring as the rest of the film. There are some good aspects to The Shadow Returns — some nicely atmospheric and Gothic cinematography by the uneven William Sickner (he was like the little girl with the curl — in some of Gale Storm’s films he lit her so sloppily it looked like she had a moustache, but here he’s very, very good, especially when the script calls for Gothic atmosphere; some scenes here are darker and more visually scary than many sequences in Monogram’s horror films with Lugosi and Carradine!) — but it’s all wrapped up in a surprisingly dull movie with way too much so-called “comic relief” and a lot of Nick-and-Nora wanna-be bantering between Lamont Cranston and Margo Lane (Barbara Read) that was a good deal less amusing than George Callahan thought it was. At one point Margo complained to Cranston, as he tried to explain the villains’ plot to her, “This doesn’t make any sense” — and I joked, “Of course it doesn’t! It’s a George Callahan script!”