Review Date: October 4, 2010
Released by: Sinister Cinema
Release date: ?
Region 0, NTSC
I don’t know exactly when the catalog arrived at my house. I was in second grade at the time, so it had to have either been the autumn of 1990 or the winter/spring of 1991. But it came in Saturday’s mail, a thick catalog from a company called Sinister Cinema, sent from far away Oregon. I was not old enough to shave, drive or watch PG-13 movies unattended, but somehow I was old enough to order videos through the mail, my meager allowance permitting. I had fallen in love with old monster movies the previous year when my parents had given me Creature from the Black Lagoon
and Godzilla, King of the Monsters
on VHS for Christmas. The first tape I bought from Sinister Cinema was a 1934 Loch Ness monster film called Secret of the Loch
, and from there I ordered again and again, movies like The Brainiac
and Manos, the Hands of Fate
and all manner of other obscure chillers. Sinister Cinema videos always had a distinctive blue flip-up cover on top of the tape, which I had never seen before and have never seen since (years later the company changed to tapes with red flip-up covers, something else I had never before or ever again seen) and always began with grayscale bars at the beginning of black and white movies and color bars at the beginning of color films, followed by the distinctive company logo of an animated bat.
Sadly, the DVD era almost relegated Sinister Cinema to the status of a bootleg company for many fans, including myself. They began offering DVD-Rs in 2002, but the quality proved to be far below the standards of manufactured DVDs that companies like Synapse and Anchor Bay were turning out. Usually sourced from 3/4” video masters – themselves often sourced from dupey, splicey and faded 16mm prints – Sinister’s discs could not hold a candle to the DVDs that were setting gold standards for horror fans (there were also suspicions and accusations that many of the films carried by Sinister Cinema, particularly 60’s and 70’s Eurohorror products, were not really public domain and were unauthorized releases). Yet the company soldiered on and has continued to operate to this day, putting out regular new catalogs with new titles. After disappearing as a customer for many years I recently decided to give the company another chance. My decision was based on my realization that, with declining DVD sales and companies scrambling to re-release much of their output on Blu-Ray, there really were some films that were probably never going to receive a proper release, and there was no need to deprive myself of a movie that I wanted to see just because I couldn't have a pristine version of it.
Something terrible is happening to the members of Britain's social elite, and it has already taken the lives of a prominent film star, a distinguished financier and a well respected peer. That something is blackmail, perpetrated by a mysterious figure called The Shadow. This devious criminal has managed to get his hands on incriminating letters written by all of these people, demanding enormous sums of money in return for keeping their secrets. The three dead men were all unable to pay and thus killed themselves to avoid scandal. As our narrative opens we meet The Shadow - who is seen only as a masked figure in black - as he converses with his latest victim, a prominent attorney, who is in a state of near panic because he has been unable to raise the £10,000 his blackmailer is demanding and the deadline for payment is up. The Shadow ignores his pleas for more time, saying that he needs to make an example out of him, and tells him that there is nothing that can be done to change his mind. The mysterious man in black leaves and the unfortunate lawyer calls Scotland Yard to report that he has become The Shadow's latest victim, then he commits suicide.
With the body count now at four, Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Richard Bryant (Felix Aylmer
) knows that something desperately needs to be done, and fortunately his subordinate Chief Inspector Elliot (Ralph Truman
) has a plan. Elliot has been posing as a man who has incriminating letters to sell and will be meeting with The Shadow that very night. As darkness falls Elliot, disguised as a common lowlife, meets with the blackmailer at a remote location in the country. After agreeing on a price for the letters Elliot pulls out a gun and tries to take The Shadow captive, but in the ensuing fight the inspector is killed and the criminal gets away. But clutched in Elliot's dead hand is an Oriental charm that he took from his killer during the fight, and Elliot's replacement, Chief Inspector Fleming (Dennis Cowles
), shows the charm to a London jewelry dealer who believes that it is unique enough that with a little time he will be able to find out where it was bought and perhaps the person who bought it.
As he waits for Fleming to crack the case, Sir Richard decides to retire for the weekend to his home in the countryside, where he is entertaining company. In addition to him and his lovely daughter Sonia (Elizabeth Allen
) he is hosting his sister-in law Mrs. Bascombe (Viola Compton
), flaky and eccentric mystery novelist Reginald Ogden (Henry Kendall
) and Sonia's fiancée Beverley Kent (James Raglan
). But as Sir Richard settles in for the night he receives three more unexpected guests when a stranded motorist named Silverton (Cyril Raymond
) and his sister Maya (Jean Stuart
) show up looking for shelter and Bryant's butler Willit (Gordon Begg
) secretly lets a mysterious man into the house. Then Chief Inspector Fleming shows up to inform Bryant that the jeweler has identified where the mysterious charm was bought and who purchased it - and the purchaser is someone in the house at that very moment! But before Fleming can reveal who it is the lights go out and a gun is fired, and the inspector falls dead. But now Bryant knows that The Shadow is someone under his very roof, and as more Scotland Yard detectives show up to investigate the criminal becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to avoid suspicion and escape...
If you've made it this far into the review, you've no doubt figured out that this film has nothing to do with Lamont Cranston, the alter-ego of another "Shadow" made famous by Orson Welles on the radio. Rather, it's a creaky old dark house mystery that is badly dated but still thoroughly enjoyable. Originally released through United Artists (or at least by them in the “United Kingdom and Irish Free State” as the credits say), The Shadow
moves quickly within its brief seventy minute running, quickly enough that the plot holes which develop don’t become apparent until after the movie is over. Because the identity of The Shadow was revealed to me beforehand by a spoiler-filled online review it is impossible for me to truly evaluate how well the film works as a mystery. There are some small attempts by the writers to imply that the blackmailer might be a woman, or might be an organization instead of a single person, but these really go nowhere. There are attempts to throw suspicion on other characters, and the subplot involving Sir Richard’s butler letting the mysterious man into the house (who conveniently is dressed very similarly to The Shadow) throws some confusion into the proceedings. My feeling though is that most viewers will still probably end up correctly guessing the criminal’s identity before the final reveal.
Yet in spite of knowing The Shadow’s identity beforehand I still found the movie to be delightful to watch thanks to its cast of veteran British performers and its surprisingly witty exchanges of dialogue. Felix Aylmer, Cyril Raymond and Dennis Cowles are all quite good in their respective parts, but the show is really stolen by Henry Kendall as Reginald Ogden and John Turnbull as a Scotland Yard detective named Carr who shows up to investigate Chief Inspector Fleming’s murder. Ogden the mystery novelist fancies himself a real detective and sets about trying to find clues, only to immediately butt heads with Carr, who is both suspicious and annoyed with the writer’s foolish, almost effeminate behavior (nowadays the character would probably be written as a homosexual). Their clashes become a consistent theme throughout the second half of the movie, with their most memorable exchange coming after The Shadow unloads a pistol at the Scotland Yard men from the top of a staircase, then disappears. Ogden shows up to inquire about the noise, leading Carr to question him:
CARR: Where have you been?
OGDEN: Oh me? Oh, all over the place, old boy. Upstairs, downstairs, but not – not! – in my lady’s chamber. Women get annoyed if you do that sort of thing, you know.
CARR: Were you upstairs just now?
OGDEN: What, during the old shooting? No fear, I was in the dining room.
CARR: Doing what?
OGDEN: Having a drink.
CARR: Anybody with you?
OGDEN: Not so. But don’t get it into your head that I’m a secret drinker or anything like that.
CARR: We’ve only your word that you were there at all.
OGDEN: Not at all, I can prove it.
He then breathes in Carr’s face, much to the detective’s disgust.
OGDEN: There you are, Johnny Walker. You can’t get away from that. Personally I don’t want to. Ahahahah!
These exchanges are honestly quite corny in their delivery, but I couldn’t help but laugh at most of them. The film was apparently based on a stage play by the prolific writer Gerald Verner (under the pseudonym of Donald Stuart), and it would not surprise me if much of this dialogue was taken more or less verbatim from the play itself. The lengthy back and forth style is much more characteristic of stage drama than a film script, but in either case it’s quite memorable. The Shadow
may be creaky and ancient, but it is rarely less than enjoyable, and it is easily recommended for those who enjoy obscure old movies.
Sinister Cinema presents The Shadow
in a full-frame 1.33:1 presentation. Overall quality is far from perfect, but it is watchable, and about on par with what you would expect from other public domain companies like Alpha Video. The Sinister Cinema website lists their transfer as being sourced from a 16mm print, although I suspect that they used a 3/4" video master as an intermediary, since there are occasional lines of distortion that would be consistent with a tape source (it goes without saying that the transfer is interlaced).
The black and image itself has a rough appearance characteristic of old, unrestored film elements. There are plenty of specks, scratches and vertical lines visible, especially near the reel change marks, and a few confusing edits apparently caused by badly done splicing of the print. Overall the image lacks sharpness and fine detail, with dark scenes often appearing far too dark. The image appears to be cropped on all four sides, as you can see from the screen captures above, the opening credits are missing quite a bit of visual information.
As previously mentioned, this is a burned DVD-R.
The film is presented in a Dolby 2.0 Mono mix. Other than the snippets of dialogue lost to splices the audio presentation on this disc is reasonable. There is a lot of hissing and popping on the soundtrack, but it is never goes so far as to be distracting or irritating. Dialogue is understandable and reproduced with surprising clarity, even though all of the original sound and music recording has that characteristic flat quality inherent to the early days of talking films.
The only extra is a trailer for the 1930 old dark house mystery The Bat Whispers
, an adaptation of the often-filmed play by Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart, this one starring the great Chester Morris.
“I hope it’s a case of gone but not forgotten,” says The Shadow as the Scotland Yard men haul him off to jail at the end of the film. As far as the movie itself goes, I certainly hope that it is neither gone nor forgotten. The film elements used in this release are not in good shape at all, but I hold out hope that there is a studio vault or a film archive out there with a better print tucked away to serve as the source for a future, remastered release. The Shadow
may be old and creaky, but it’s far too enjoyable to remain unseen forever. This DVD-R is a little pricey considering you can get pressed DVDs of similar quality at every dollar store in America. But as far as I can tell this movie has not had a budget release or any other digital release except for this Sinister Cinema version, and the curious are advised to go over to their website
and check it out.
Movie – B
Image Quality – C-
Sound – C-
Supplements – C
- Running Time – 1 hour 10 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- Dolby 2.0 Mono
- Trailer for The Bat Whispers