Monday, July 23, 2012


Back in the golden age of pulp fiction and superhero comics, this was the treatment most people felt superheroes deserved. By 1946, The Shadow had been an immensely popular hero of pulps and radio for nearly a generation. Walter Gibson's mysterious crimefighter had already been rendered on film three times, including a Columbia serial, before Poverty Row mainstay Monogram Pictures launched a fresh series in 1945 with The Shadow Returns. Phil Karlson's Behind the Mask is the second of the three Monogram Shadows, and it opens with a promise of better things to come from Karlson. A man makes his rounds at night in moody scenes that reveal him to be a newspaper reporter who uses his information to blackmail shady characters like the proprietors of illegal gambling operations. He's raising his price and people don't like it. This is straight and to the point and nearly noir, until the reporter is killed. It seems that The Shadow did it, and that'd be understandable since the reporter's a rat -- except The Shadow didn't do it. Lamont Cranston (Kane Richmond) was at a pre-wedding party that night; he's finally planning to make it legal with Margo Lane and she's putting the pressure on him to quit his nocturnal crimefighting. But getting framed for murder is a poor note to quit on, so Cranston and his loyal driver Shrevvy set about finding the real killer, despite the best efforts (that's irony, son) of Inspector Cardona, while Margo and her loyal galpal Jennie set about complicating matters even further.

The Shadow has hardly been done justice on film. His first two outings, in which Rod La Rocque plays him, miss the mark in different ways. I want to emphasize here, however, that La Rocque's second effort, International Crime, is a genuinely funny film in its brazen abandonment of the pulp/radio gimmick in favor of a lightly hard-boiled portrayal of Lamont Cranston as a wiseass radio crime reporter who uses The Shadow to rib ineffective cops and get himself in trouble. International Crime is a more complete travesty of the original concept than Behind the Mask, yet Karlson's picture, inherited from old "One Shot" Beaudine, is infinitely more stupid. Story writer Arthur Hoerl did a lot of hero pictures, including the original Superman serial, while scripter George Callahan did a lot of Monogram's Charlie Chan pictures, noteworthy for their emphasis on comic relief. I would not have been surprised had either of them had written Bowery Boys movies, though that seems not to have been the case. The comedy is on that level. Margo is written as a complete shrew and idiot, and you have the mirror effect of two obnoxious women -- Jennie is Shrevvy's girlfriend -- harassing their men and getting their comeuppance. The picture ends with the men spanking the women on a fire escape. It takes 67 minutes getting there and that's a hard hour and change to sit through. I didn't keep exact score, but Margo may actually wear the Shadow costume more than Lamont does, having appropriated it to snoop around a crime scene on the assumption that solving the crime would speed her wedding day. Slapstick ensues, all of it scored to the most intelligence-insulting mickey-mousing soundtrack imaginable. The film's big action scene is a romp in an impoverished gym with the Shadow running up and down flights of stairs, swinging from a rope, bouncing off mattresses, etc. He can neither shoot people as his pulp precursor would nor cloud men's minds as his radio self could. His one power is the ability to elicit radio-esque organ music when he finally appears in costume.

It all leaves you wondering who wouldn't see this film and feel cheated, and why a studio would so blithely cheat its presumed audience. I can't help but feel that it boils down to contempt. The Shadow and his ilk were disposable garbage then, which is why their original publications are so valuable now. The idea of fidelity to the source material would probably have struck screenwriters, even at Monogram, as insulting. You see this whimsical contempt in so many of the earliest superhero adaptations that by comparison the infamous Sam Katzman Batman serials are nearly Nolanesque in their respect for the character. At least Katzman didn't change Batman's name and origin like Republic did with Captain America.  But I digress. My main point is that even a travesty can work, as International Crime did for me, if it can at least work on its own terms. Behind the Mask doesn't even do that. There are different degrees of contempt for material, after all. You may be so contemptuous of the source material that you assume you can do better. Or you may be so contemptuous that you won't bother doing any good. Common to either form of contempt is an assumption that the stupid audience won't really care. Contempt in, contempt out, I say. Behind the Mask is one of the most contemptible movies I've seen in a while.

Believe it or not, a trailer survives. Captbijou uploaded it to YouTube.


Erich Kuersten said...

Man you nailed the head with the contempt issue of Monogram... probably their worst sign of contempt was when they'd stick the 'guy who wrote this picture - screwy idea, wasn't it?' in the film like APE MAN with Bela Lugosi. These films are the equivalent of a snotty, lazy teenager who decides to do everything at his job half-assed because he thinks he should be working some place glamorous, for more money. It's like dude, YOU are the reason this film sucks, not the budget or subject matter or actors... It's frustrating, especially since over at PRC there was occasionally good work done, by Ulmer and others

Samuel Wilson said...

Erich, that Ape Man ending is a sticking point for lots of people, and it almost certainly was some writer thinking he was a smartass and above it all. The sad part of Behind the Mask is that Phil Karlson probably could have made a decent Shadow film even if he didn't take the material as seriously as the character's fans. Of course, it wouldn't surprise me if some folks take the stuff we're complaining about as "the Monogram touch" that gave the studio a self-aware, subversive identity etc. etc. Believe it or not.