Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Classic Tuesdays: Behind the Mask (1946)

    “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”
    So began every broadcast of one of the most popular shows in the pre-television days of old time radio, The Shadow. For those unfamiliar, the Shadow was one of the very first masked crime-fighters, with the ability to “cloud men’s minds” and make himself appear to be invisible, leaving behind only - you guessed it - his shadow. Probably best known as a failed Alec Baldwin vehicle today, the Shadow provided a model that has been copied endlessly since: by day, Lamont Cranston is an unassuming playboy, donning a cloak and slouch hat to become a vengeful spirit at night . Indeed, much of the groundwork laid for Batman seems taken liberally from the Shadow’s modus operandi. He was a favorite of boys across America, who tuned in every week to thrill to his adventures on the radio from his start in 1930 to the show’s cancellation in 1954. So lucrative was the character that Walter Gibson (who wrote the Shadow’s pulp magazine) was able to buy his own train travel car - and this was during the Depression.

    As with all popular characters, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling, and the Shadow made various appearances in B-movies, one reelers, and even his own 15-part serial. Pretty much all of them changed the material so much from the source that it’s virtually unrecognizable. And Behind the Mask, the second in a series of three Shadow films put out in 1946, fares no better. Kane Richmond plays the title role of Lamont Cranston/the Shadow - fans of old movie serials will recognize Richmond from the exemplary Spy Smasher, and under any circumstance the actor would be the perfect fit for any film requiring a dashing lead, but unfortunately he’s not given much to work with here. Things start out well enough: we open on a corrupt newspaper reporter, making his rounds through a rain-soaked city. It’s apparent that they’re operating on a limited budget, but director Phil Karson was a veteran of cheap B-noirs, and makes the most of what he has in these opening moments.

    The reporter returns to the newspaper office, makes advances towards his secretary (’cause he’s sleazy), and is promptly murdered by a man in a mask. Everyone in the office catches a fleeting glimpse of the murderer, and jump to the conclusion that it must be the Shadow. Up until this point, the movie has seemed promising, a well-shot, noirish murder mystery featuring one of the pioneering characters of mystery/detective fiction. But then the real Shadow shows up. And, far worse, brings his supporting cast along with him.    

    What follows plays like a strange cross between Kiss Me Deadly and I Love Lucy. Just like on the radio show, Cranston is helped by his agents Margo Lane and Moe “Shrevvy” Shrevnitz. Unlike the radio show, both characters act as the comic relief, constantly getting in the way of his investigation. As played by Barbara Read, Margo becomes Cranston’s fiance, who gets involved in his life as the Shadow not to help in his case, but rather to make sure he’s not cheating on her. Cranston would be a far more successful crime fighter if he were single. Shrevvy is played by George Chandler as a simpering buffoon, content to follow Cranston around and copy all his mannerisms to a fault. Added for the movie is Jenny, Margo’s best friend who adds nothing to the proceedings. She has a thing with Shrevvy, possibly because if she didn’t there would be nothing for her to do (we could only be so fortunate).

    The movie shifts schizophrenically between not-so-hard-boiled mystery and comedic scenes that are in no way, shape or form funny. But how fares Cranston’s crime-fighting alter-ego? He’s barely in it, and when he appears in costume it’s a far cry from his original persona. The Shadow has switched his red bandana for a dopey looking rubber mask, and traded in his blazing, twin automatics for a quaint .38 revolver… which he never uses. 

    I’ll leave you with a description of the film’s final moments to chew over: having successfully solved the mystery of the murdered reporter (hint: it was a character who didn’t appear until the last five minutes), Cranston takes Margo in his arms and says, “I’m going to give you what you’ve deserved this whole time...” Margo looks back up at him, stars in her eyes, thinking her dream is finally about to come true. Then Cranston throws her over his knee and proceeds to spank her. Never one to be outdone, Shrevvy grabs his gal Jenny and does the same. Both men smile and give each other the okay sign, slapping their girlfriends’ rears as “The End” rolls up on the screen. Yeesh…


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