Shadows and Fog
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Kenneth Mars, Michael
Kirby, Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Donald Pleasance, David Ogden Stiers, Wallace Shawn, Philip
Bosco, Madonna, Julie Kavner, Madonna, Kate Nelligan, Charles Cragin, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly,
Kurtwood Smith, Camille Saviola, Fred Gwynne. Screenplay: Woody Allen.
Let's keep this simple and precise. There are three ways to trick yourself, or to get tricked, into
watching Woody Allen's Shadows and Fogwhich, before any mistake may be made, is a listless
workshop for a picture, not a cohesive picture in itself, and therefore less entertaining or enlightening
than anything I've ever seen His Neurotic-ness throw together. The first and most tempting reason to
watch Shadows and Fog is the sheer volume and richness of its cast, a group that includes such
unsinkables as Lily Tomlin, Kate Nelligan, Philip Bosco, and Wallace Shawn, not to mention eye-catching
names like Madonna, Jodie Foster, and John Cusack.
Almost none of their characters have more than three scenes, as it happens, so discrediting the majestic
marquee as to warrant charages of false advertising. Madonna may not even remember being in this film,
her participation is so brief, and poor Nelligan has to deliver her entire single scene in a long shot
that barely makes her recognizable. So there's that caveat: don't expect to rent Shadows and Fog
and spend a jolly evening in stargazing.
Reason #2 why Shadows and Fog may seem like an inspired choice for a Blockbuster night is the
visual idiom of the movie, which was frequently the element singled out by disappointed critics as the
only discernible reason for this film to have been made. As the title suggests, Allen has conceptualized
a midnight-alley atmosphere that yearns for echoes of M or The Third Man, a mood underscored
by a major plot involving a strangler on the loose in a nameless city dislocated from any tell-tale
regional or chronological identifications. Cinematographer Carlo di Palma, with whom Allen works
frequently but rarely in so stylized a setting, has a good time with the billowing mists and loooonnng
shadows that forever reveal and conceal different permutations of students, vigilantes, prostitutes, and
(ahem) circus performers that are all on their guard against the anonymous murderer.
I have long contended, however, that Allen is not always disciplined enough to amass a whole movie's worth
of engaging material when he believes he has discovered one sure-fire idea. In the same way that
Mighty Aphrodite hung drably on the tentpole of Mira Sorvino's inspired central performancethough
her responsibility to hold up the whole film was the only sense in which she was a "supporting"
actressShadows and Fog's visual concept is thin meat indeed beneath all the flavorless garnish
Woody provides. Even a Kafkaesque subplot in which his character is awakened to participate in
street-patrolling activities that have not been described to him, or a Hitchcockian one in which he is
wrongly implicated for Pleasance's murder, come to absolutely nothing. Farrow's part is written so
absent-mindedly that she reunites with unfaithful lover Malkovich (as irritatingly self-conscious as ever)
and attempts to persuade Woody to leave with her when the circus leaves town. And that doesn't
even mention her dalliance with the Cusack character; she amasses paramours in this picture even more
quickly than she adopted children in real life.
Finally, Shadows and Fog, released in late 1991, falls on the timeline of Allen's career during a period
when several winning or even bracing projectsthe fanciful Alice (1990), the razor-sharp
Husbands and Wives (1992), and the terrifically interesting Another
Woman (1988)were unfairly neglected for reasons ranging from generic eccentricity to
tabloid-powered overexposure. Shadows and Fog, however, proves to be one Allen project that
deserved the cold snubbing it received from critics and audiences. Allen's films are never wholly without
ideas, and there is something interesting attempting to get out here about persecution complexes and
blocked creativity, but the film ends up embodying those concepts more than really exploring them. Rent
Husbands and Wives, or if you need to see Woody in duochrome, rent Manhattan. All the cold
shoulders this picture deserves are still nowhere near as cold as this remote, lazy effort. Grade: D+