Shadows and Fog (1991)

Shadows&Fog1I tend to lump Shadows and Fog in with Stardust Memories, which might be unfair. They are both noble experiments with a lot going on that’s interesting, but not a lot that’s ultimately engaging or entertaining. I’m sorry to say after Alice that this was another film that left me flat.

Shadows and Fog takes place one night in a very shadowy, very foggy unnamed European town around the 1930s. A serial killer is on the loose, and Kleinman (Woody Allen) is woken in the middle of the night to join a vigilante group. In the unsettling overnight streets he experiences the ineffectualness of the police, the church, science and political groups as each tries to deal with this evil. At the same time, a circus is in town and the sword swallower, Irmy (Mia Farrow), leaves her philandering clown husband (John Malkovich), only to find herself becoming a one-time prostitute in a cosy harem, for a besotted client (John Cusack). The characters and stories combine, and in the end only the circus magician can save Kleinman from the killer.

MBDSHAN EC015It’s a woolly tale, and its lack of focus is part of the reason this film couldn’t hold my interest. The Kleinman story is the most interesting, and seems to have the most to say about how we try to understand and deal with evil, and how ultimately we fail. The circus and whorehouse stories, however, seemed less consequential although their characters have long speeches and time for many insights and life and love.

What is most interesting about Shadows and Fog, and what makes it stands out in Woody’s work, is the visual composition. Not since Stardust Memories has there been such a stylised flair, with some stunning work in black and white by cinematographer Carlo di Palma. The backlighting, the composition and the set design all contribute to the Kafkaesque nightmare Kleinman finds himself in. The entire film was shot on a soundstage in New York, and there is a definite nod to the old German Expressionism style of Murnau.

Shadows&Fog2Speaking of visuals, this is the first film of Woody’s I noticed in which long takes get really long. There is a scene in the brothel in which the camera pans around while everyone is talking, thought not necessarily showing who is talking at any one time. It seems like more of a Robert Altman technique than a Woody Allen technique, and there is a looseness to this scene that’s unlike the rest of the film. This long take and disregard for classic cutting would become more and more prevalent.

Like Alice, this film also features a gallery of well known Hollywood actors in minuscule roles, including Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Madonna, Donald Pleasance and Lily Tomlin. Future stars John C. Reilly and William H. Macy can also be spotted with almost one-line parts.

Shadows and Fog was another flop at the box office. Apart from its striking visuals and its star-studded cast, there is not much more for me to recommend it today. Woody’s commentary on evil and morality and magic has been said before, and in better films.

Next week: Husbands and Wives

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