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Savant Short Review:

Shadows and Fog

Shadows and Fog
MGM Home Video
1992 / B&W / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 86m.
Starring Woody Allen, Kathy Bates, John Cusack, Mia Farrow, Jodie Foster, Fred Gwynne, Julie Kavner, Madonna, John Malkovich, Kenneth Mars, Kate Nelligan, Donald Pleasence, Lily Tomlin
Cinematography Carlo Di Palma
Production Designer Santo Loquasto
Film Editor Susan E. Morse
Original Music Kurt Weill
Writing credits Woody Allen
Produced by Robert Greenhut, Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe
Directed by Woody Allen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Few of Woody Allen's movies are said to be great successes at the boxoffice, even when they reach the heights of Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, or The Purple Rose of Cairo. But then every so often he throws one of his somber dramas into the stew. Although deep-dish reviewers of the likes of September can sing Allen's praises in their own way, most of these films have to be appreciated for encouraging Woody to sometimes get serious in his 'comedies.' Way back in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Woody seemed to be adept at mimicking the styles of his favorite European directors - Fellini, Bergman. Only later did it come to pass that he seemed to be trying to be them. Allen often used humor to humanize what were at heart horribly grim stories, often with excellent results. Shadows and Fog is an experiment, the kind we always say filmmakers should be attempting, even though they rarely succeed.


Lowly clerk Kleinman (Allen), cowed by everything and everyone in his miserable life, is yanked from bed on a foggy night to be a part of a vigilante group hunting a serial strangler (Michael Kirby), who is claiming victims by the hour despite the torchlit posses roaming the streets and harassing any soul out alone. Kleinman is bullied by several self-appointed vigilante leaders, all of whom threaten him and doubt his 'loyalty.' Meanwhile, circus sword-swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) catches her clown boyfriend (John Malkovich) in the wagon of another performer (Madonna) and packs her bags. Walking the dangerous streets, she's taken in by a streetwalker (Lily Tomlin) to shelter at a brothel, where an impetuous student (John Cusack) pays her hundreds of dollars to sleep with him. When Kleinman is caught stealing circumstantial evidence that places him at the scene of one of the murders, he suddenly finds himself the target of a lynch mob.

Wacky, fun stuff, right? Actually, Shadows and Fog has a lot going for it. The visual look is a match for what Pabst's Pandora's Box must have looked like when it was new, with a truly interesting mittel-Europe cobblestoned town created through some very impressive sets. Carlo Di Palma's b&w lensing is truly an asset, with frequent breathtaking compositions that remind one of any number of expressionist films. Because Pabst isn't Fellini or Bergman, copping his style results in a fairly refreshing-looking movie. You really expect to see Lon Chaney Jr. walking Evelyn Ankers on his arm through the fog. The fogbound denizens of this nowhere-land speak English but dress and act like characters in a period film like The Three Penny Opera, or Gaslight, which adds to the dislocation. The soundtrack is entirely made up of great recordings of Kurt Weill music for Three Penny Opera, so fresh that they overpower the movie. They're too light to be a good match with Woody's grim show, but don't cheer it up any, either.

The acting is also tops, not a surprise in an Allen movie. Mia Farrow is as sensitive as ever, and most of the other guest star turns are just fine. John Cusack has the luck of an interesting , pleasantly written character to play. Lily Tomlin is creditably restrained, as is the frequently hyper Donald Pleasence, in his role as a humanitarian practitioner of midnight autopsies. Madonna makes zilch impact in a nothing bit, and John Malkovich seems a bit forced in his obviously-written part. Elsewhere, Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster, and Julie Kavner don't have near enough to do. Top-notch types like Kenneth Mars, Fred Gwynne, William H. Macy, David Ogden Stiers, John C. Reilly, Kurtwood Smith, Wallace Shawn and Kate Nelligan are barely there at all.

Script and conception don't seem to have come together in this Allen effort, and it's more than just a matter of the jokes not being very funny. With such a special atmosphere, Allen's predictable one-liners fall flat. The story has plenty of content, with its pitiless killer, insane lynch mobs, mercenary police and priest, but Allen never goes far enough to connect any of it with anything we can specifically relate to. When we're constantly trying to find our bearings, figuring out that the various bullies that torment Kleinman (ex-wives, landlady, employer, priest, vigilantes) aren't going to relent comes as a let-down, even when such unresolved anxieties remain true to the Kafka-like sensibility. The scenes with the killer show that Allen could make a perfectly appalling gothic horror film if he so desired, but he's instead inclined to strive for meaningfulness, with his witch-hunt allegories. This may be an acceptable world view for a moral artist, but Allen's personal solution to existence in this foggy hell (ignore everything and run away to join the circus) is both trite and dramatically unfulfilling. Doubtless, the parallel story of Farrow and Malkovich becoming proud parents of the child of a strangler victim is meant to force a lighter aspect into the proceedings, but it doesn't quite come to life.

Shadows and Fog is an Allen title Savant wanted to see, and now my curiosity is satisfied. DVD is great for pictures like this. You might want to give it a chance too. There are some nice things in it, especially any scene with Mia Farrow.

MGM Home Entertainment's DVD of Shadows and Fog is a tidy package with the film's somber poster art on the cover and a richly graded black and white movie, enhanced with 16:9 formatting, inside. With Allen's contractual insistence that no added features be included whatsoever (he has a point when he insists that doing so is like appending a short story with explanations and analysis) the disc is left with a trailer, excellent mono tracks in English, French and Spanish, and a folded piece of paper with production notes that MGM still laughably calls a Collectable Booklet. The standard 16 chapters are adequate for this title - it's only 85 minutes long.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shadows and Fog rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 16, 2001

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