Shadows and Fog review
Spoiler level: Nothing that can’t be remedied with a blow to the head.
Shadows and Fog is a German expressionist murder-mystery, set in an unnamed Kafkaesque town in the middle of the night.
A serial killer is on the loose, and Woody Allen’s character Kleinman is reluctantly recruited into a group of vigilantes out to catch him.
There are glimpses of top-form Allen in the film, but ultimately it’s not his best. Perhaps he was distracted – the film was made in 1991, the very year he began his affair with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter.
On a related note, it’s the last film Allen ever did with Farrow, before their acrimonious and sordid separation …
The film was all shot on a giant 26,000-square-foot set – the biggest ever built in New York – which is the main reason it cost so much; at $19 million it’s Allen’s most expensive film ever. (Figures all pilfered from IMDb, so don’t quote me on ’em.)
The setting is all cobbled lanes, brick buildings and dark corners, shrouded in shadows and fog for the most part – that was so sneaky Allen could reuse the same buildings over and over without us realising.
There’s also a terrific number of big names in small parts, and familiar faces keep popping up to deliver one or two measly lines; it’s really quite distracting.
Donald Pleasence (who you may know as nefarious Blofeld), John Malkovich and John Cusack have smallish roles, but not as tiny as those of Madonna, Kathy Bates, Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, William H Macy, John C Reilly and Kurtwood Smith (Red from That ’70s Show).
The scenes in the whorehouse, which include Bates, Foster and Tomlin, are the least successful part of the film. I can take my Allen with a pinch of wry misogyny – I get how it’s there to provoke us into reflection – but in this film it’s honestly more like ‘See the jolly prostitutes! See how easygoing and hilariously cynical and philosophical they are!’ Gimme a break.
The worst clanger comes from Foster, who you’d expect to be better at portraying a prostitute, considering she started so young (13 to be precise, in her Oscar winning performance for Taxi Driver …).
‘There’s only one thing men will brave murder for – that little furry animal between our legs,’ she giggles, wrinkling her nose as we wrinkle ours, for completely different reasons.
In the same scene, one of the more senior prozzies offers the less bilious but equally Oprah-esque: ‘There’s only one kind of love that lasts – unrequited love. It stays with you for ever.’ Bleurgh.
These moments of hideousness are overshadowed, however, by Allen’s awkward charm, some brilliant existential dialogue, and some gratifyingly squirmy macabre jokes.
The doctor is the centre of a potentially intriguing rumination on – to quote him just before he snuffs it – ‘Where insanity stops and evil begins’, but those ideas are never explored, merely mentioned, which is disappointing.
‘Sometimes certain impulses that can drive an insane man to murder … inspire others to highly creative ends’ – that’s about as deep as it gets.
The best part of the movie comes right at the end, when Kleinman teams up with the great magician Almstead to trap the serial killer with ol’ jumping-into-the-mirror trick … there’s nothing better than some Woody Allen physical comedy.
Kleinman then avoids ‘the grey hat of compromise’ to do what he loves, joining the circus as the magician’s apprentice, which may come across glib but is actually a great piece of advice, lost in a generally uninspiring movie.
Stick around till the end for some great 1920s circus music, which sounds like versions of You Do Something to Me and Mack the Knife.
Here’s the ol’ mirror trick scene: