Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Shadow series from Monogram (1946)

In pulp fiction stories and radio shows of the 1930s and 40s, The Shadow was a wealthy crimefighter who went by several names, one of which was Lamont Cranston. As the Shadow, he wore a mask and used hypnotism to "cloud men's minds" and usually was seen only as a shadow. Before WWII, he was featured in a handful of B-films and one serial, but under review here are three films made at Monogram in 1946, all starring Kane Richmond as the title character. In these movies, the focus is on Lamont Cranston, playboy nephew of the police commissioner; he rarely appears in his Shadow guise, and though he makes surprise appearances designed to scare his foes, he never even attempts to cloud any minds.  The character has been tamed to be just another variation on the "unofficial" detective, like Bulldog Drummond or Boston Blackie.

In the first film, THE SHADOW RETURNS—he was returning to the screen for the first time since the 1940 serial—Cranston has promised his longtime gal Margo (Barbara Read, credited as "Reed") that he'll marry her, settle down, and quit his crimefighting ways, but suddenly a case crops up: a man named Yomans digs up a grave, takes a bag of jewels out of it, and enters the Hasdon mansion, where a number of people have gathered to buy the gems. But after Yomans enters the house, he vanishes along with the gems, and Cranston helps the police figure out what happened. Every time someone is about to be nabbed, they fall from a balcony and die. Suicide? No, a trick with a whip, Cranston discovers as he collects the suspects in a room to announce the killer's identity. Cranston slips on his Shadow mask a couple of times, and the "old dark house" atmosphere is occasionally effective, but the film mostly tries to set up Lamont and Margo as Thin Man-type screwball romantic detectives, helped and/or hindered by dumb cops and by the Shadow's sidekick Shrewy (Tom Dugan) who spouts way too much tortured punning wordplay. [YouTube]

BEHIND THE MASK is by far the least of the three films, more a comedy than a mystery. Jeff, a newspaper reporter (James Cardwell, who comes off like a B-movie John Garfield), is murdered in his office, and since all the onlookers see a Shadow-like shadow against his glass wall, Cranston has to take on the case to clear his own name. It turns out that Jeff was involved in a bookie operation in which people place their bets by talking into a nightclub jukebox. The best moment occurs when three people dressed like the Shadow are in a room together. There is also a nicely done fisticuffs scene in a back room gymnasium. In this film, Shrewy is played by George Chandler (pictured above right with Richmond in his mask) who does a better job than Dugan, but he's also saddled with his own dumb blonde sidekick/girlfriend (Dorothea Kent). Richmond is called upon to act more goofy than mysterious.  There's not much to recommend in this one. [Netflix streaming]

But the third one is the charm: THE MISSING LADY is a nifty little thriller with a distinct film noir air. A crook known as the Ox bumps off a man named Douglas and steals a precious figurine called the Jade Lady, but the Ox in turn gets it taken from him. The cops hear Cranston talk about finding a missing Lady and think he means an actual person, but there are plenty of other people looking for that Lady, including a curio dealer named Kester, an artist named Field, and a mysterious figure named Blake (James Cardwell) who hires a brassy blonde named Rose to help him track it down. The presence of a couple of femmes fatales and lots of shadowy nighttime scenes give this a noir feel and a slightly more serious tone that puts it a notch above the other two films in the series. There is still too much comic folderol, and this time there are also two batty old ladies who operate the elevators in Cranston's apartment building (where much of the film takes place) and race each other up and down between floors. None of these movies really conjure up the atmosphere that one would expect from a Shadow story—and in MISSING LADY, Crantson only dons the Shadow gear for two very short scenes—but if you're in the mood for some harmless B-mysteries, they'll do.  [Netflix streaming]

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