| Dir: Woody Allen
“Nothing is more terrifying than attempting to make people laugh – and failing.”
Allen’s most ravishing pictures have been in monochrome and this marks his first return to black and white since 1984, after a hot streak of 5 in 7 years with cinematographer Gordon Willis. Allen has had confidence in the complete command of his craft since his dramatic departure in 1978, but this is his first movie since Manhattan to truly exhibit his collaborative talent in the area or cinematography. It’s an explicit but loving homage to the German expressionist cinema of the 20s and 30s, featuring environments that resemble the work of Fritz Lang, Franz Kafka or Robert Wiene. These are enhanced even more by the very appropriate soundtrack full of songs from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht.
Manhattan was admittedly a much deeper and meaningful piece, with the cinematography framed around a poignant love letter to a city with a touching love story at its centre. Shadows and Fog, however, is more an opportunity for debating the nature of evil; how the characteristics, tendencies and impulses that drive people to murder can otherwise be harnessed into positive actions or “highly creative ends” in other people. It’s also one of his most anti-Semitic films, although suggestions that it’s a metaphor for the evil that was the holocaust are far-fetched.
Based on his one act play ‘Death’ released in 1975, this is a bit of a throw back to his comedy of that time. Allen’s original persona, overflowing with the neurotic quirks and mannerisms of his early funny ones, play off violence and intimidation here in a classic fish out of water scenario. Vintage quips include: “A deranged person is supposed to have the strength of ten men. I have the strength of one small boy, with polio”; (to a sword swallower) “What happens when you get hiccups?”; “I can’t make the leap of faith to believe in my own existence”; “May all your ups and downs be in bed”; and “Family is death to an artist”, which is perhaps very telling of Allen and Farrow’s domestic placement at the time.
The Allen of old is especially present in a scene where he attempts to hide out at his ex-wife’s house from a lynch mob. It’s a funny circumstance, but revelings of lust and adultery undermine the protagonists sympathy in his eternal ignorance of his role in the societal good deed.
The title itself plays up the cinematic compositions and aesthetic throughout the film. This wonderful work fills frames with meandering shadows, fog, reflections and refraction. The camera pans, zooms, angles and slowly swoops around as if caressing the mise-en-scene. Stylised by silhouettes and heavy, unrealistic back lighting, it’s very striking and aesthetically daring.
The scene circling around each member of the dinner table at the brothel references a similar scene (also shot by Carlo di Palma) from Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s an elegant and sensitive touch for a film surrounded by violence. Luscious and rewarding sights such as these are complimented by the great work from production designer Santo Loquasto, who together create a world that feels equally endless and eerily confined.
Allen has never had trouble assembling capable casts, but this may be my favourite and most impressive based on cameos and early career performances – John C Reilly, Madonna, John Malkovich, John Cusack (in a much less Allen-esque role than he would later play in Bullets Over Broadway), Jodie Foster (who has the distinct pleasure of licking Allen’s nipple), William H Macy, Kurtwood Smith and Wallace Shawn all appear.
Allen’s tendency in this era is for indulgent exercises, yet here he is less refined and sincere in his approach than something like Radio Days.
The balance of comedy and a tragic trajectory does bring an effective uneasy and eerie atmosphere. But the final act drops a lot of simmering arcs and, inevitably, the entire conclusion building throughout the picture is unresolved in a bait and switch. It’s a visually arresting film with both tense and fun moments, but a plot that becomes more dreary as it develops.
This would be the final picture Allen would release with Orion, who filed for bankruptcy shortly after its New York premiere. They had released his last 11 films since A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. As the company was set up by former staff from United Artists, who released every Allen film before that from 1969s Take the Money and Run, this would mark a significant shift in the production and financing of Allen’s films.
Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.