9/17/2010

Top 6 Words: Shadow

Posted in Top 6 Words at 5:00 am by Sam

“Shadow,” a nice dramatic word, is the word for this entry in the Top 6 Words series. My favorite “shadow” movies follow the jump, but try thinking up some “shadow” titles on your own before peeking. Chime in with your own list in the comments section.

I came up with seven titles, and that means one has to go. I think the runner-up will be the obvious one: The Shadow (1994), which stars Alec Baldwin as the dark superhero that was a staple of radio audiences in the 30s and 40s. Baldwin is no Orson Welles, who got his start voicing the character, but the movie isn’t bad.

6. Snake In the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)

Scholars of Hong Kong kung fu flicks of the late seventies have seen this movie before in some form or another. The plot is as formulaic as it gets: a badguy is bent on wiping out all practitioners of a particular style of kung fu; meanwhile, an old guy in the woods trains a young nobody in the nearly lost arts, who ultimately saves the day. Most of these films were pretty bad. Snake In the Eagle’s Shadow has all the usual weaknesses, including overdone slapstick, but it distinguishes itself from its peers with some exceptional fight choreography and at least two very nice comedic sequences.

5. Casey’s Shadow (1978)

Walter Matthau is at his best in this film about a down and out racehorse trainer trying to raise three boys on his own. He’s got plenty of great dialogue, and yet some of the warmest and funniest moments are wordless. The film’s final shot is wonderful, but would it have worked with any face but Matthau’s?

The film is unusually knowledgeable about horse training, which it demonstrates not just with accuracy but detail. The authenticity with which it handles the world of horseracing reassures us that we’re not just watching a manufactured story but a glimpse of a real world. The film doesn’t shy away from the ugliness in that world, but it is ultimately a heartwarming tale as the story is not so much about that ugliness as the struggle of a man to stick to his principles and still make ends meet.

4. Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)

Fourth in the series of six Thin Man films, this one reunites Nick, Nora, Asta, booze, witty banter, and a murder mystery for another go around the track. Literally, this time: the story takes place at the racetrack. If it feels a little familiar, it might be because you saw a wisecracking William Powell solve a racetrack mystery in an earlier film, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936). But the differences are enough to warrant a viewing of both.

The first two Thin Man films were electric with their fast-paced scripts and the ritzy, carefree lifestyles of their characters. By the end of the series, the formula was wearing thin, and in any case it was better suited to Depression-era escapism than the darker social climate of World War II that gave rise to film noir. Shadow of the Thin Man is a noticeable step down from its predecessors but still well worth seeing.

3. Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

While film noir is a distinctly American genre, the British turned out some excellent noirs of their own. In Cast a Dark Shadow, Dirk Bogarde plays a bluebeard of sorts who makes the mistake of matching wits with the wrong woman. The acting is great across the board: cold, hard-edged, and sometimes even shocking.

2. Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Nosferatu (1922) remains one of the most popular horror films, even among those who would normally avoid any other silent film, because of how resolutely it crawls under one’s skin. The actor playing the vampire, Max Schreck, does such a good job (and despite acting regularly until 1936, is only particularly known for this one role) that it’s scarcely a great leap to speculate that he might really have been a vampire. Bela Lugosi was wonderfully effective in Dracula (1931), but on some level we know we are witnessing a performance. Schreck’s Nosferatu is so much the stuff of nightmares that how could it be anything but?

This is the premise of Shadow of the Vampire: that Max Schreck really was a vampire, and director F.W. Murnau (played by John Malkovich) found him and hired him for his movie. But he discovers keeping a vampire — and moreover keeping it happy — is more of a challenge than he reckoned.

It sounds like a comedy, perhaps, a creative cousin of The Little Shop of Horrors? Not a chance: comic though the premise may be, it’s played straight. There are some legitimately chilling moments here. What humor there is — and there are a few such moments — are almost as scary. “Why him, you monster?” Murnau rages, after Schreck has just eaten a key member of the crew. “Why not the…script girl?”

The film works best if one is familiar with Nosferatu, as several scenes recreate the classic moments in that film and even work in some of the details of its making that are the stuff of movie lore.

1. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Hitchcock’s favorite of all his films, Shadow of a Doubt is a classic thriller that holds its own against the more well known entries in his filmography. There’s a little less cynicism and subdued bitterness towards the main characters as there is in some of Hitchcock’s later work, but the chills and uncertainties are no less pressing and suspenseful. Hitchcock toys with the viewer’s imagination with an expert hand, leaving an indelible impression. Similar to Suspicion (1941) in plot structure but more complex in characterization, Shadow of a Doubt concerns a young woman and her growing concerns that her favorite uncle just may be a murderer.

1 Comment »

  1. joem18b (231) said,

    September 21, 2010 at 3:19 am

    I’d have to put “Cast a Giant Shadow” in this list somewhere. It can’t rate lower than some of these entries, if only because Michael Douglas appears as a jeep driver in perhaps his first film appearance, thanks to his dad, i suppose - and may both michael and kirk hang in there with their afflictions - and because Sinatra and Wayne lived it up in Rome during the filming, until Wayne fell off a jeep and hurt himself.

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