Back to black and white, Shadows and Fog is apparently an homage of sorts to German expressionist cinema. These movies include Nosferatu (1922) and M (1931).
Okay, so I haven’t seen those films, but I’m loosely aware of them and Shadows and Fog looks like them. The whole thing is dark and shady. It’s just… shadows and fog. It’s like Woody is saying “well those has shadows and fog, this one does too, so we’ll call it that.”
Woody plays Max Kleinman, a squirmy man who is on a neighborhood team go vigilantes, searching for a serial killer, basically Jack the Ripper. But Max has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing. Everyone else on the vigilante team knows what the plan is, and they scold him for not knowing the plan.
Then he stumbles upon Irmy (Mia Farrow), a sword-swallower who has left her husband who also works with the Circus, in town for the night. Irmy and Max develop a friendship, but circumstances force them to go their separate ways. It’s really one circumstance, actually. The vigilante team is already fighting within itself so they have split up into multiple teams, demanding that Max pick a side. Then the mob grows when evidence shows Max may be the serial killer. So a mob chases him, and he’s forced to hide.
Ultimately, Max runs to the circus where he saves Irmy by warning her about the serial killer who nearly kills her. Then Max, with the help of a magician, traps the serial killer but he mysteriously disappears before the mob can get to him, which would have proved Max’s innocence.
In the end the magician offers Max a job as his assistant, and Max decides to join the circus and leave town where everyone seems to hate him anyway.
The film ends with the magician claiming that people don’t just like his magic, but they really need it.
The entire story takes place over the course of a night, and because of that it feels very claustrophobic. You can never see very far because of the darkness and the fog they pumped onset. Similarly, a lot of the story takes place in doors, but no matter where the scene is set, you feel trapped.
Woody plays classic Woody. He’s caught up in something beyond his control, and something that’s accelerating out of grasp, leaving him in the dust.
I guess the whole film felt like something from The Simpsons. The angry mob is very familiar to The Simpsons, because it involves normally rational people acting irrationally aka mob mentality. It shows how poorly people can sometimes act under duress.
I’m trying to figure out what else this film stands for. I guess it’s about behavior in the face or morality? That might be a little much for a comedy that feels like a partial return to many of Allen’s earlier, broader comedies.
There is more of the plot that I haven’t yet touched upon. Irmy and Max meet at the police station after Irmy had been brought there under charges of prostitution. When we first meet her, she finds her clown (literally) husband, played by John Malkovich, sleeping with another woman. So Irmy angrily leaves and runs into Lily Tomlin, playing a prostitute who tells her the streets aren’t safe. She brings her to the brothel where we meet the other prostitutes who all seem to be having a pretty good time. They make fun of the men who usually visit them, and they take everything in stride.
Then a few college students visit, and one of them is played by John Cusack. Cusack says he wants Irmy, even though she’s labeled as off limits. He offers her $20, and the after a few no’s, he finally offers her $700, to which she says yes.
Jack (John Cusack) is so taken with Irmy, and throughout the remainder of the story he can’t let her go. He tells another woman at the brothel that even though he just met Irmy on a chance encounter, he still feels like he lost something.
John Malkovich also feels like he lost something, so he goes looking for Irmy. He eventually finds her, after a brief encounter with Jack who reveals he slept with Irmy, though he’s not aware she’s Malkovich’s wife.
Well Malkovich finds Irmy, and they find a woman dead in the street with a living, crying baby. They end up taking the baby and all signs point towards them staying together with the baby and potentially making another one.
When I mentioned earlier about this film possibly posing the question of how we behave in the face of mortality, I was mainly thinking of a scene at the brothel in which Max and Jack and the hookers discuss life and death. Max admits to not believing in a god and hardly believing in his own existence. Jack seems melancholic, though this may be temporary and driven by his feelings for Irmy. The hookers, on the other hand, seem well-adjusted.
Then you have the “strangler” on the loose throughout the film. Early on we see his face, so it’s never a mystery of who he is. He’s also not much of a threat to the main characters. They wander the streets throughout the night and hardly encounter him. In that way I guess it really is about how other people act in response to the awareness of the killer. Everyone’s aware that the strangler is out there, even if they don’t encounter him. That could just be a personification of death as a whole. Since he’s a murderer, it’s not much of a stretch. But this whole film deals with characters who are aware that the murderer is on the loose, so what do they do in response? How do they deal with love and fear and anger?
I’d say Irmy and the hookers are the most rational. Irmy gets back together with Malkovich but it seems like there is genuine love between them still. The hookers are constant throughout the film. They’re just there and trying to have a good time… and make money. It might still be an act, but it might be working.
So this film isn’t about the killer just like Hannah and Her Sisters isn’t really about Hannah, though it is about her sisters, so the comparison might no completely work.
What’s the importance of magic? The magician makes the killer disappear, or he just escapes, but either way he does perform magic that affects the killer. At the end, just before making himself and Max disappear, he says people need his tricks.
The illusion is important. This is similar to the movie escapism during the Depression Era and in The Purple Rose of Cairo. In this case, magic might help people forget about death and the strangler. This could be extended to the circus as a whole. Yet we don’t see people interact with magic much, at least not until the end. Well maybe the brothels are a form of magic. Magic is whatever you use to distract you from the strangler. The university students go to the brothel and Jack speaks with disdain about his education, saying it doesn’t make him happy, just more aware.
So, even though my writing right now (and always) is so scattered, I do think this is a film about what we do when we don’t want to think about death. Hell, the vigilante groups split off and fight amongst themselves because there’s nothing else for them to do. Like Isaac theorizes in Manhattan, we create our own problems. There’s nothing for them to do because they don’t have an organized plan to find the killer, so they fight amongst themselves instead.
Another scene that just jumped out to me is when Malkovich finally finds Irmy and gets mad at her for sleeping with the university student, telling her he’s going to kill her. Then they hear the scream of death from the murdered mother of the baby they later care for. Right away they are back on the same team, in fear of the strangler. Irmy tells Malkovich to hold her, and this is the beginning of their reunion, forming a family with the fallen woman’s baby and each other. Their family is thus a result of fear of the strangler.
That’s not to say they’re wrong, of course. And who’s to say the university student is wrong for visiting the brothel and spending so much money? I never got the sense we’re supposed to criticize any of these characters’ behavior, except maybe the vigilante groups.
So that’s all there is to say, I guess. There’s magic all around us, apparently.
Up Next: Husbands and Wives (1992), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Bullets Over Broadway (1994)