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Woody Allen's SHADOWS AND FOG turns 20

2011 marks the 20th anniversary of Woody Allen’s SHADOWS AND FOG, meaning, among other things, that the prolific filmmaker has made 20 films since (actually, he’s made 21, but who’s counting?). In 1989 Allen made the much-loved CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, followed by the slightly less loved ALICE, and then SHADOWS AND FOG, which was, unfortunately, even less of a hit amongst audiences. The early 90s New York Times film critic Vincent Canby actually ended his review with a ridiculous “note of caution: SHADOWS AND FOG operates on its own wavelength. It is different. It should not be anticipated in the manner of other Allen films.”

Based on Allen’s one-act play, “Death,” SHADOWS AND FOG was shot at the Kaufman Astoria Studios on the biggest set ever built in New York. Filmed in black and white and set in a nameless Middle European city shrouded by the thick fog of the title, it’s a fanboy’s homage to F.W. Murnau and the German Expressionist filmmakers. Kleinman, (Allen) a nebbish clerk and Irmy (Mia Farrow) a circus performer, wander through the city late at night while a murderer is on the loose. Over the course of the film Kleinman’s faith is repeatedly questioned, and his allegorical search for and avoidance of the mysterious murderer is a stand in for his search for God. Do they catch the murderer? Is his true identity revealed? Or does he remain cloaked in obscurity and myth?

The story might make for a better graduate lecture than a film, or maybe it’s best confined to one-act. There’s a lot of meandering, both physically and metaphysically, but Allen’s intriguing comparison of God to a serial killer is handled so deftly, his use of chiaroscuro so practiced and his handling of a large and impressive cast (John Malkovich, Madonna, John Cusack, Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Wallace Shawn, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly) so well orchestrated that SHADOWS AND FOG remains, for me, a refreshing experiment and a much needed break in his typical oeuvre of bungled relationships, cheating lovers and jokes about therapy.