Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Shadows and Fog (1991)

Then By 1997 I was down on my luck. I’d graduated from university the year before and, with the exception of three torturous weeks at HMV had enjoyed over twelve months of stunning unemployment. Eventually I was looking for any work and found myself travelling out to West Kirby for an interview at a job centre to work at the job centre. It was one of the quickest interviews of my life. The employer just seemed to ask me my name, where I was from, what my degree had been and that was that. If I hadn’t had to wait twenty minutes before being seated I would have been in and out in five. Outside was the weekly street market and its here that I bought an ex-rental copy of Shadows and Fog.

Now When I was much younger, before my Dad retired, he was the key-holder for the business where he worked. Sometimes if the burglar alarm malfunctioned or if a robber had genuinely attempted to break into the place, he’d be woken up by the police in the middle of the night and have to go down there to turn the cacophony off. I’d sometimes go along to keep him company and we’d find ourselves standing in a Liverpool side street at three o’clock in the morning.

This was quite some time before the concept of twenty-four cities had become currency so the area was deserted and only illuminated by the odd street light. The city at the time of night was an unreal, artificial place, almost like I imagined a film set must be without the people, the hustle and bustle. Every change in light source would seem significant, every noise surprising and not a little bit frightening. I usually wondered what kind of support I was offering as I yelped with fear.

That’s precisely the atmosphere, Woody succeeds in creating in Shadows and Fog and even mentions a feeling similar to mine in the dialogue as his character Kleinman guides Mia’s sword swallower to safety. For once, the title of the film describes its visual look. In this city, created on the biggest film set ever placed in New York, characters slip in and out of shadows or find their environment obscured by a pea-souper, often reduced to silhouette, unable to tell who they may bump into.

Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma is very specifically referencing the look of films of Lang, Murnau and Pabst and the German Expressionists in general, where buildings and even the features on human faces become abstract shapes open to interpretation. That means there’s also something of the Hitchock in here too; as the mob head onto Klienman’s trail, I was reminded of climax to The Lodger which isn’t surprising considering that Hitch’s stock storyline is of the wrongly accused man attempting to clear his name by catching the real hoodlum.

If anything the only problem with the film is that in parodying Kafka in a similar vein to Love and Death’s evisceration of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, it’s pulling in all kinds of directions and trying to cover almost too much ground in its eighty minutes. Another director would have filling out an entire running time with the brothel or the lynch mobs or the circus and have and yet Woody has them all interacting with one another. But perhaps that’s its genius. How many other directors would look at Murnau’s Sunrise and wonder what it would be like to have Chaplin wander through?

How many directors for that matter would look at Madonna and think that she’d be perfect for the small role of the tightrope walker? And she is, this being from her Louise Brooks period when she had a charismatic onscreen presence (also visited upon for A League of their Own). This is another film filled to the rafters with a kind of casting porn, with the likes of Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates as prostitutes and John Cusack as their student client, John Malkovich as a clown and even Donald Pleasence as surgeon.

It also sees the return of the cartoon figure who populated those earlier funnier ones, albeit with deeper philosophical underpinnings. Stig Bjorkman suggests it the older character from his then contemporary films, but towards the end he offers a particular smile and years drop away from him; he’s not the man who sat crumpled at the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors. As Allen tells Bjorkman, “this is what I’ve been fooling with for a while now, the attempt to try and make comedies that have serious or tragic dimension to them.”

This one of the few occasions when he gets it right.

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