Production Budget: $14 million IMDb lists costs at $19 million
Domestic Gross: nearly $3 million
My apologies for the delay and what will probably be shorter reviews than I’m used to for the following two Woody Allen films. I had seen them several weeks ago and had every intention of reviewing them then. But a mountain of other engagements seemed to pile up at once and I’m trying to work my way through a mountain of movies that have backed up in my review queue. I also have to note I could only find the domestic totals for this film. While international totals have propped up Woody Allen films in the past, I do not see it likely they pushed it into a profit on this occaison.
Shadows and Fog follows Kleinman (Allen), a nebbish clerk who is woken up in the middle of the night by a vigilante group. There is a serial killer roaming the streets of this European city set around the 1920’s. The group claims Kleinman is an intergral part of some plan to capture the killer (although they never tell him the plan) and release him on the streets of the city alone to be a part of said plan. In another plot thread, sword swallower Irma (Mia Farrow) runs away from her cheating boyfriend (played by John Malkovich) and eventually runs into Kleinman.
This was one of the Allen films I was eager to get to on my retrospective. I always appreciate the times Allen leaves his comfort zone because you are guaranteed something which is, at the very least, and interesting effort. Plus in my limited readings of other reviewers, they list it is a very underrated film of his. Of course, when something is underrated, that means it wasn’t rated very highly upon initial release. Well, what would my box office bomb reviews be if not a fresh take on films that may not have had a fair shot on their theatrical release.
So what is my opinion on this movie? I’m not quite sure. There are aspects of this film I should love but by the time the credits were rolling I had many conflicting ideas rattling around in my head. The movie is apparently inspired by one of Allen’s plays called Death however I more strongly caught on to the similarities to Franz Kafka. Yes, this is one of the few times I get to brag about reading Kafka. One of my original ideas for film analysis (which I may still do) would be of Orson Welles‘ adaptation of The Trial which I have also read. Both Trial and Shadows have that same surreal and satirical tone and both follow a rather hapless fellow who is caught in a dream world where he can’t make sense of the insane world around him. I also love the look of the movie as it is a recreation of noir films of that period. Woody Allen made this the most expensive film of his career by building the largest set in New York to recreate the European setting and look.
If I had a criticism it would be with the inconsistent tone of the movie. As I mentioned before, Kafka’s Trial was a satirical but there is a difference between satirical and goofy. The court and K’s trial were absurd because of the overwhelming powers it had and K not knowing what the hell was going on. But the book was not playing it for straight up yuks. Shadows and Fog sometimes has that dark satire, but then we cut to Kleinman clutzing around almost like Allen’s usual nebbish character. It’s like having a vaudeville routine in the middle of Network. They are both comedy, but they work in two completely different contexts.
The subplot involving Irma also doesn’t quite fit with everything else. I see similarities with this and with Bergman’s Seventh Seal with the knight plot and the family subplot. But as the main plot was inspired by Allen’s play of which Irma was not in, the Irma subplot does not feel like she is fully integrated and does not feel completely relavant to everything that is going on.
While I didn’t love Shadows and Fog, it is a movie I want to see a few more times. While there are things in the writing and tone that hold it back, there is more that I really like about it. Allen, when he is not playing to the audience, is actually good as a tragic hero. You feel for this character as you see him getting railroaded and how he seemingly cannot escape this nightmare. I love the great black and white photography and the overall tone of the film. With some extra work, this could have probably been a masterpiece. As it is, I will simply call it an underrated gem.