Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine coming to theaters, we look back on the Woodman’s most undervalued movies.
Shadows And Fog (1991)
“Nothing is more terrifying than attempting to make people laugh and failing,” says John Malkovich’s philandering clown in the opening minutes of Shadows And Fog. With this throwaway line, was Woody Allen preemptively bemoaning the lukewarm response that would greet his jokey homage to German Expressionism? Shot in black-and-white on an enormous soundstage in New York—allegedly the largest ever built in the city, at least at the time—Shadows And Fog evokes the moody proto-noirs of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau through an abundance of, yes, shadows and fog. There are shades of Lang’s M in the opening scene, which finds an angry mob storming into the home of Allen’s meek bookkeeper and demanding his assistance in finding the serial killer that has terrorized their sleepy island community. (“I’d hate to find you in an alley with your throat slit ear to ear,” gasps his landlady. “Don’t worry about that,” Woody replies. “He mostly strangles.”) Having set the nominal plot into motion, Allen expands his canvas to include the village’s other nocturnal inhabitants: After catching boyfriend Malkovich canoodling with fellow circus performer Madonna, Mia Farrow’s sword-swallower wanders the street, eventually taking shelter in a whorehouse—the working girls are played by Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin, and Kathy Bates—and accepting an exorbitant amount of money to sleep with student John Cusack.
If there’s a central joke here, it’s that Allen has dropped himself and several other modern neurotics into what looks and feels likes 1920s Germany, at least as captured by the movies of that time and place. Shadows And Fog wrings a few laughs out of the juxtaposition—many of them courtesy of Woody himself, shrinking in the face of a bellowing mob or dryly bantering with an obsessed doctor—but the film pretty quickly abandons high-concept jokes for a loose, typically Allen-ish mixture of sex comedy and light philosophical debate. Which is fine, frankly: A relic of an era when even the director’s second-tier films could put smiles on faces, Shadows And Fog works a gently charming mojo, especially during a late scene when Woody, Cusack, and the prostitutes talk existential anxiety before attending to more primal preoccupations. For his next act of homage, Allen should play tribute to an age when his movies were still funny.
Availability: DVD, digital rental or purchase from VUDU, and disc delivery from Netflix.