On DVD: Reflections on Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog"

Woody Allen's continued output of a picture per year is both impressive and baffling.  Impressive that a man in his mid-seventies can maintain this kind of productive energy.  Baffling because the vast majority of his films over the past decade have been just awful.  A few have been mediocre, with only two (Small Time Crooks and Match Point) being anything like memorable.  Maybe he's on autopilot, continuing to produce at the same rate he's been producing for his entire career (40 pictures in 44 years).  Allen is on record as saying that he doesn't really look back at his films once they've been released, so maybe he's unaware as to the cumulative impact of his last ten years of work. 

Whatever the explanation, I have avoided his last few releases, but have recently begun reviewing Allen's back catalog by looking at a few titles that I originally had fuzzy reactions to.  One of those is Shadows and Fog (1991), a comedy-thriller that has a mixed reputation.  In some ways, that's understandable; it drags in places and might over-rely upon its wonderful design work.  But it's a captivating film on a couple of important levels.  

It is one of Allen's most visually beautiful films, second only to Manhattan.  It is probably the only Allen movie shot entirely on built sets.  The black-and-white photography (and the overall look indicated by its title) hearkens back to silent German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s.  Costumes and music are also carefully applied here, creating a pastiche effect that nonetheless carries Allen's own thematic interests along with it.  It is an homage, but it's not only an homage.

The story combines elements from
The Threepenny Opera with a Kafka-esque tale of frustration.  It's night, and a strangler is on the loose on the outskirts of an unnamed early twentieth century city.  Kleinman (Allen) is dragged from his bed by a budding lynch mob and thrown into a plot to trap the killer.  He is never informed of what he is meant to do by the vigilante group that rouses him.  Spinning off into the night on his own, Kleinman encounters a couple of dozen characters in his search for his purpose in tracking the killer, including a circus performer turned one-time prostitute (Mia Farrow), the town doctor (Donald Pleasance), and a number of rival vigilante gangs who have their own ideas about how the killer should be captured.

Kleinman is never informed of what these diverse plans are, buffeted by the competing would-be lynch mobs, and is never asked to do anything specific to aid in the killer's apprehension.

Within this framework, Allen gets at some weighty concepts in his usual witty and felicitous way.  If the killer represents a specific, measurable evil, then Shadows and Fog suggests that human irrationality (in the form of the vigilantes) will wind up preventing the apprehension of that evil and will pervert social justice to boot.  The vigilante groups spend most of the film engaged in in-fighting and wind up accusing Kleinman of the killings.  While they pursue Kleinman, the killer strikes again and again.  Eventually, Kleinman joins forces with a circus magician (Kenneth Mars), and captures the killer with magic, implying that something as spurious and untenable as a magic mirror is still more powerful than a committee of self-important buffoons.  But evil proves uncontainable, as the killer quickly disappears again into the night.

That Woody Allen is able to access such interesting themes - themes that have a special resonance now, in the Age of Terror - while maintaining an entertaining, visually compelling cinematic experience is a testament to this filmmaker's ability to tell a story from a very eclectic toolbox.  For all of his trademark mannerisms and one-liners, Woody Allen will ultimately be remembered as a filmmaker of wide-ranging interests and abilities; despite certain flaws,
Shadows and Fog highlights that range.

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