Released in 1937, The Shadow Strikes is the earliest film based on the pulp fiction and radio hero, the Shadow. In fact, it may just be the earliest film based on any superhero — if we can apply the term to the Shadow. Normally I wouldn’t hesitate to do so, as he’s certainly a forefather of the genre and has plenty of thematic similarities, but it’s a little more difficult to apply the term in this particular film.
See, to some extent it’s unclear as to whether director Lynn Shores and the writers were fully aware of who the Shadow is. While it’s based off an actual Shadow story, “The Ghost of the Manor”, it doesn’t feel entirely like a Shadow adventure.
In fairness to the writers, not all of this is their fault, but is simply a natural degree of dissonance coming from a viewer 76 years later. The stories had been in publication for eight years at that point, but the radio show had debuted only a month before this film — and it was the radio show that introduced the hero’s signature ability to “cloud men’s minds”. Thus any modern viewer has to adjust their expectations somewhat to account for the fact that this is a mysterious figure, but not a quasi-supernatural one.
The problem that crops up is that he’s also not particularly mysterious in this film either. He is seldom lurking in the shadows, and only dons his trenchcoat and hat (without the signature scarf) twice in the film, and only briefly in both cases. We’re told he’s feared by the underworld, but his encounters with them are fairly perfunctory in this film. And the rest of the time, he’s out in the open, acting as an undercover amateur detective, complete with standard detective wisecracking and a sidekick, Hendricks (Norman Ainsley) who serves as comic relief. I don’t recall the character from the stories, but as it’s been 20 years since I read any of them, and it was only a few, I could simply be misremembering. What I’m not misremembering is that the Shadow’s public identity is Lamont Cranston; the dialogue in the film gets this right, but every time it’s written down, it’s spelled “Granston”. It’s a minor nitpick, perhaps, but it’s still a little irritating.
That’s right, comic book fans. Hollywood has been getting the details wrong on superhero films since before Superman existed. It’s not travesty, it’s tradition!
Cranston is played by Rod La Rocque, and while one might expect him to be played as a wealthy playboy type (given Cranston’s usual cover identity), that isn’t the case here. Cranston is conducting his own investigation when circumstances force him to pretend to be lawyer Chester Randall, whose office he has broken into. One thing leads to another, and he finds himself investigating a different case, one where an elderly and eccentric millionaire has been murdered. The millionaire’s nephews and niece all come under suspicion, and it’s up to Cranston to figure out who the guilty party is before anybody else dies or his cover is blown.
The core premise of the story is reasonably good, but the execution has some definite flaws. First is the issue of the heirs; with the exception of Walter McGrail’s character, they’re all fairly bland. He brings his to life entertainingly, but he has one of the smallest parts of the five. The niece, played by Agnes Anderson under the name Lynn Anders, is a fairly generic film noir damsel type, and of course there’s a romantic triangle subplot involving her and Cranston. Then there’s a mob subplot, as well as a throwaway framing device about Cranston investigating his father’s death. It winds up being a bit of a muddled mess — this is only an hour film, so there isn’t room to properly develop all of these plots. Worst of all, the solution comes out of nowhere and has only the most tenuous connection to the other plots.
As a film, it’s moderately entertaining, although the end left a sour taste in my mouth. As a film about the Shadow, I find it’s a bit lacking. It’s acceptable that he isn’t yet the mysterious mesmerizer that he would become in the radio show, but the almost complete lack of mystique about him doesn’t serve the character well. There’s a sequel (International Crime) also starring La Rocque that I may check out sometime, but it’ll be only out of idle curiosity and a desire for completeness when it comes to superhero and pulp hero films. And that’s pretty much the only reason fans should want to check this one out as well.