One year following his overlooked 1990 film, Alice, Woody Allen followed that up with his tribute film towards the German expressionist film movement, Shadows and Fog. As the title suggests, Allen and cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, soak the film in a misty and darkened b/w atmosphere, so Woody was obviously trying to differentiate it from his usual plot threads where he zips around one place to another. But the problem is that despite the environment looking gorgeous, it only acts as a fresh lick of paint. In other words, he is still zipping around the place. Shadows and Fog was one of Woody’s first major let-downs after his high streak in the 1980’s, receiving middling reviews and tanking at the box office. As part of Arrow Academy’s third box set covering Woody’s highly prolific directorial career, Shadows and Fog has been given the Blu-Ray treatment, updating the beautiful visuals.
Set in an unnamed European town, Shadows and Fog follows a bookkeeper, Kleinman (Allen). As he is trying to get some sleep, his terrified neighbours wake him up as a serial strangler is on the loose; murdering people all across the town. The residents form vigilance groups in hunting the killer down and Kleinman agrees to help out. Meanwhile, a travelling circus lands in town. Two of the performers, Irmy (Mia Farrow) and Paul (John Malkovich) have split up following Paul having an affair with a tightrope artist. As Irmy leaves at the dead of night, she meets Kleinman but risks falling into the clutches of the strangler.
Shadows and Fog’s main problem is that not only is it overstuffed with famous actors and meanders quite badly through meaningless plotline after meaningless plotline, but it also clocks in at just under 90 minutes. So it feels very patchy to have Woody running across this European town speaking to every man, woman or child he comes across, with each one being played by an acclaimed actor/actress, and yet, everyone can’t possibly fit their stories into this runtime. Some like John C. Reilly or William H. Macy hardly get a line of dialogue, whilst others such as Kathy Bates or Donald Pleasence are trying their hardest to get something out of the material, only for Woody to not give them that chance as he dashes over to the next person in this cycle.
The actors or the performances aren’t at fault here. Woody has proven that he knows how to handle an ensemble cast well. Radio Days is a good example. Since that had an overarching narrative all pinpointing to one core idea, in that case, old-time radio, the ensemble cast is a lot more warranted as each person had a unique story that kept things fresh, funny and engaging to watch. On the other hand, Shadows and Fog has a linear narrative with Allen hunting the serial killer, so it doesn’t really need an extensive cast to give their own stories or dilemmas which make the plot even more convoluted. Though despite the film having a severe case of overcasting, much of the cast do suit their roles. Some take their roles and put an interesting spin on it, Pleasence plays the town doctor, with a slightly sinister tone of voice and an exhausted physical exterior, he performs the part as best he can without going down the usual mad scientist route. Whilst others know they are playing a clichéd character, but are still committed enough to come across as memorable, such as Jodie Foster as the hooker with a heart of gold.
Shadows and Fog is obviously rushed. But needless to say, the positives outweigh the negatives. The gloomy environment being the film’s biggest achievement. With this, Allen tips his hat off to Fritz Lang, F. W. Murnau, and G. W. Pabst in such a loving fashion as dread fills the air, as what the German expressionist films did best. The plot even shares some similar beats to Lang’s M with hints of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. But despite its craft being near flawless, there is a feeling that the film isn’t finished. Not only in the screenwriting department with stories being piled on top of one another, but also in terms of gags. This isn’t Allen at his funniest as he seems worn out at this point in his career. But the film does offer a good chuckle here and there, especially when Mia Farrow is completely naïve to the recent turn of events, though these jokes are not memorable. Shadows and Fog is not recommended as a starting point in the man’s long career, but it isn’t Allen’s weakest as people have made it look. Perhaps it is a lesser film but its accomplishments are also too hard to ignore.