Shadows and Fog is based on Woody Allen’s one-act play Death, which was published in 1975 as a comic version of Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 play The Killer. While Death had been performed multiple times in the years following its first publication, it had never quite achieved the stature of Allen’s films, which is perhaps why he chose to adapt it himself in 1991. That said, it’s probably more accurate to describe Shadows and Fog as a total transformation of Death, since it proceeds by progressively denuding Allen’s script and voice, while embedding his tribute to Ionesco within a broader paean to silent film culture, and German Expressionism in particular. Black and white cinematography always seemed to induce Allen’s most beautiful exercises in style and composition, and Shadows of Fog may well be the most beautiful of all of these, as Allen unfolds a phantasmagoria of contorted and obscured spaces that draw on films as diverse as Freaks, The Phantom Carriage and Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, but which all have the syntax of silent cinema at their core.
As with Death, there is very little narrative – just a series of spaces and situations that take place over one foggy night in an unknown city, whose citizens are gradually putting together a plan to track down and capture a serial killer. At the centre of it all is Kleinman, played by Allen, an amateur magician who gradually finds this amorphous plan converging around him, and finally identifying him as the prime suspect. When we first meet Kleinman, he’s safe and cosy at home, but he’s quickly and reluctantly propelled out into the surrounding streets, where he works his way through a series of tropes and images from silent cinema, some of which facilitate his movement and some of which stall him to play out as self-contained tableaux on their own terms. Insofar as there is a narrative, it tends to revolve around three key spaces and situations – a brothel, a morgue and a circus – which gradually reveal themselves to be the three archetypal spaces and situations of silent cinema, thanks in part to the burgeoning romance between Kleinman and Irmy, a circus performer played by Mia Farrow, who seems to embody a rotation of silent cinema characters depending upon the milieu within which she is placed. At heart she’s a circus performer, like Kleinman, but her showmanship is gradually dissociated from the actual circus and calibrated more in terms of how well she can accommodate herself all the various roles and requirements that seem to be thrust upon her by the different spaces she occupies within the foggy city.
Against that backdrop, Allen opts for a highly mobile camera that moves from object to object, and only outlines the spaces around or between them after it’s lingered and fetishised whatever happens to be carrying it from one space to the next. For a director who is typically not especially interested in camera mobility or flamboyant evocations of physical space, this is quite a striking stylistic move – so surprising that these sequence almost inevitably recapture the miraculous mobilities so critical to early silent cinema, whose grandest narratives were often simply vehicles for forcing the viewer to contemplate how their quotidian urban spaces had been reconfigured by the intensified mobility of the movie camera as a perceptual possibility. At the same time, this lavish cinematography makes for the most defiantly auteurist gesture from Allen since Stardust Memories, which was also shot in black and white, and was itself explicitly and directly concerned with Allen’s quasi-auteurist style and sensibility. As strenuously as Shadows and Fog might evoke the silent era, then, it is a version of the silent era that has been percolated through the more stylised silence of the arthouse cinema of the 60s and 70s, and especially the ways in which the new waves revived the sense of the troupe that was so critical to characterisation in silent film.
Yet for all the nods in the general direction of silent cinema, this is also a more specific contemplation of German Expressionism, and the legacy of German Expressionism within the arthouse cinema of the present. Throughout most of the films in which he stars, Allen plays more or less the same version of himself, ensuring variation by surrounding himself with a slightly different cast and premise every time. In the 2010s, that process has been utterly exhausted, so it’s easy to forget how well Allen, along with casting director Juliet Taylor, was able to orchestrate just the right combination of actors and scenarios to prevent his persona ever growing stale (or at least prevent it growing stale as rapidly as it otherwise would have). As someone who grew up watching Allen’s films on VHS, I still remember the incredulity of seeing him star alongside Charlotte Rampling, Michael Caine, Demi Moore and Leonardo DiCaprio – actors who I had previously thought of as completely alien to Allen’s insular Upper West Side universe, but whose proximity to him forced a productive and mutual misrecognition that forced me, in turn, to reconsider where their screen personae came from in the first place. Like Altman, Allen offered a kind of late ensemble experience that resisted both the mystical apprehensions of digital technology that had seemed to render traditional ensembles redundant by the 90s, but also the resultant and reactionary elevation of ensemble drama to a nostalgic middlebrow mode, instead working to discover ever more surprising and unexpected ways to generate meaning from actors in proximity.
Of course, Allen, like Altman, had his own large troupe of regular actors, but these tended to contour the differences between his films more than congeal them into any kind of easy continuity. Nowhere is that clearer than in Shadows of Fog, which contains Allen regulars, such as Mia Farrow and Julie Kavner, actors who were always destined to end up in an Allen film, such as John Malkovich and Wallace Shawn, and, finally, actors who still feel utterly incongruous with Allen’s universe, such as Kathy Bates, Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster and Madonna. Against such a dramatic spectrum of actors – most only appear once or twice – Allen himself would already be more alienated than usual from his regular tics and mannerisms. Yet the abstracted cityscape and contorted stylistics ensures that this is Allen’s single most radical revision of his screen persona, as his neurotic, anxious, cringing mannerisms segue effortlessly into the demonised versions of Judaism that so often formed the conceptual, ideological and aesthetic horizon of German Expressionism. Across most of his films, Allen’s neuroses often function as a modesty topos, or an inverse arrogance, allowing him to impress his presence and personality on any situation at any time. Here, however, those features simply collapse into the shadow of all the Jewish archetypes that animated 1920s cinema, especially once he leaves the warm comfort of his house for the Expressionist streets outside, where the “plan” starts to converge on him as prime suspect.
In the process, Allen is also more dissociated from his New York backdrop than any of his other more phantasmagorical films, even or especially as Shadows and Fog was shot on the biggest sound stage ever constructed to date in New York. Many of the foggy streetscapes could easily be stills from Docks of New York, The Jazz Singer, The Cameraman or any other number of silent films shot in the Big Apple, and yet New York feels further away than in any of Allen’s other films, including those that are literally set apart from the city. In these exercises, Allen usually lights upon some space that acts as a cipher for New York, just as the films in which he doesn’t appear usually feature some actors who is effectively playing him. For that reason, New York couldn’t possibly be entirely absent here, but this nevertheless Allen’s most remote and stylised mediation and meditation upon his home city, if only because Shadows and Fog is so attuned to the way in which the German Expressionist revision of New York was always inherent in the city itself, whether conceived as a fantasy from afar, as in the case of Billy Wilder and F.W. Murnau, or as the result of actual tourism, as in the case of Fritz Lang, who travelled there shortly before providing New Yorkers with his own phantasmagorical prophecy of their bustling metropolis in Metropolis.
In other words, Shadows and Fog dovetails the German Expressionists’ fantasy of the American city with the American cities that they remade in their own image – or that their own images had already conditioned them to see in a particular way – when they started to emigrate in the 1930s in response to the escalation of the Third Reich. More than in any of Allen’s other films, then, anti-semitism and New York are intimately connected, just as Allen’s Jewish identity brands him in a way that rarely occurs in his other films, exceeding all his attempts to contour and command it by way of his comic rapport with his home city. For a director whose “existential” musings could be so affected, Shadows and Fog is one film where this existentialism feels authentic and hard-earned, if only because of the way in which it abstracts and dissociates so many of Allen’s mannerisms from the urbanity that makes him so affected in the first place. Similarly, for all the affectation of Allen branding himself as the next Bergman, this is one film that really recalls Bergman in its eerie, free-floating tableaux, which brim with the sense of some inexorable eventuality that just as inexorably refuses to disclose its true import until the moment of crisis has arrived. In no other film in Allen’s career does the Bergmanesque credit sequence feel so true to the film itself, while his preferred length of eighty to ninety seconds feels like an auteurist or even avant-garde gesture as never before, compressing its conclusion into the final five seconds.
Put more simply, Shadows and Fog channels Allen’s love of intellectual obscurantism into an aesthetic obscurity that is quite bracing after the invisible style, or superficial style, that characterises so many of his other films. So obscured and latticed are the compositions here that you tend to recognises characters by their voices before their faces, while some characters are just voices suspended against the fog, ciphers for a camera that also becomes more disembodied and participatory as it proceeds, floating through a vaporous ether that confounds any distinction between past, present and future. For the most part, Kleinman is subsumed into the anxious, neurotic, connective tissue that constitutes this landscape, scurrying through the noirish streets from one foreboding assignation to the next, even as he seems to dissolve a little more into those streets each time he heads back out into the night as well. Watching it, I realised how often Allen shoots himself in close-up, since here his face is nearly always blurred when he is not framed from a distance, or otherwise shot in such extreme close-up that the effect is nearly as disorienting. Equating the camera with a surveillance apparatus that is invisible but omniscient, inconceivable but somehow already right up against Allen’s cheeks, this is one of the most elegant dialogues between the director and his instrument over his vast filmography, as he shows us, momentarily, just how debilitated he still might be by this medium that he has tentatively claimed as his own.
That process isn’t just a matter of camera angles, but of sets, since while these might be enormous enough to utterly dwarf the actors, Allen only reveals their full scale very gradually, and even then offsets it with the accumulation of deeper and thicker fog. At no point are we permitted to fully grasp the scale of either the sets of the fog, with both blending into one cavernous zone whose coordinates are purely hypothetical, and which seems to be imagined by different characters in different ways. While the fog evokes the scale of the sets, and the buildings evoke the scale of the fog, we are never given access to either on their own terms, as Allen collapses the actual scale of each into Kleinman’s fears of how far each might extend, rivalling even the greatest German Expressionist art design in his capacity to distill paranoia into a distended space and situation. It’s in this stylistic gesture that Shadows and Fog announces its departure from Death, which subsists largely on the comic incongruity between Kleinman and these existential spaces. Here, however, the film proceeds by folding all Allen’s tics and quirks back into this brooding ambience, until it effectively is the substrate from which all those anxieties emerged in the first place.
This, then, is Allen’s version of silent cinema – not necessarily a film in which he says nothing, but a film in which all the extroversion, hyperbole and performativity of his Jewish persona is set against a moody cinematic substrate that is still confident of its capacity fo mute and flatten this identity into oblivion. No surprise, then, that Nazi iconography and Expressionist stylistics become one and the same, as Kleinman finds his name placed on an ominous list (“You’ve been warned twice”) only to bribe and wheedle his way out of it by reverting to something like the self-deprecating persona that has been Allen’s stock in trade all along. Seeing this comic signature framed as a mode of survival is quite astonishing, and makes for one of Allen’s most sombre and sobering meditations on his Jewish heritage – a meditation that is all the more unsettling for the fact that anti-semitism is never explicitly designated as such, but subsumed into an escalating existential dread whose very eeriness comes from this awareness of what can’t and won’t be named by those most anxious to perpetuate it. As the “plan” that centres on Kleinman grows more opaque, and the criteria for being a “social undesirable” grows more oblique, the amorphous existentialism that can make Allen’s other films feel so heavy-handed reveals itself to be a structure of feeling that not only emerged through German Expressionism, but that constituted German Expressionism in the first place, along with all its distinctive and iconic stylistic foundations.
Put simply, then, the “plan” that converges on Kleinman is not simply something depicted through the film, but the very aesthetic register that makes up the film in the first place. No wonder, then, that the screenplay focuses more and more on this plan, and then eventually becomes synonymous with it, as the second and third acts dissociate into a series of free-floating directives and interrogatives (“Why didn’t you attend to your function in the plan?”) Like some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, these later parts of the film take everyday urban spaces and then set them adrift in an indeterminate ambience that is so deftly suspended between past and future that it seems to articulate something that remains incommensurate with the present moment of watching and engaging with the film itself (“Everything’s moving all the time, you know, everything’s in constant motion, no surprise I’m nervous”). That’s true cinematic existentialism, and it’s only enhanced by Allen’s masterful combination of long shots, filtered lighting and vast discrepancies in scale, all of which are ultimately about distancing us from his own voice as much as anything occupying the visual plane, and forcing us to envisage him as a silent actor, if only by visualising the enforced silence that galvanises his incessant will to speech in the first place.
In the process, Allen’s body language is forced to speak for itself more emphatically than ever before, as he returns to the more physical and plastic acting of his earliest screwball and slapstick comedies. Like those comedies, Shadows and Fog reveals just how attuned Allen’s body language is to the silent era, and especially the Jewish archetypes of the silent era, so many of whom were forced to bend their backs and crouch down as so much collateral damage for the first generation of cinematic auteurs. The difference in this case is that Allen is both the auteur and the archetype, the slave and the pharaoh, just as Shadows and Fog takes his more typically slavish devotion to cinematic auteurs and questions how that might make him complicit in broader patterns of exploitation, or even be a form of ongoing exploitation in itself. Rather than citing established auteurs as a mechanism for reinforcing his cinematic credibility, Allen instead evokes how much of his aspiration for cinematic credibility has been a way of coming to terms with the damage inflicted upon the Jewish body by the very auteurs that he reveres, or at least by their ancestors. All of a sudden, the oneiric self-regard of his most iconic features feels like a bulwark against a self-hatred engendered and embodied by the very canonical tradition his Upper West Side affectations have always yearned to be a part of, making for a film that splits the difference between narcissism and self-hatred – a film that is solipsistic in the truest sense, as Allen searches for something external or prior to the version of himself that has been handed down by the cinematic substrate upon which he his entire career and life has been founded.
For that reason, Shadows and Fog reiterated to me how deeply Allen’s body language draws from the Marx Brothers, whose radical efforts to dissociate ingenuity from auteurism play as something of a forerunner to the approach followed here, even if they wouldn’t have necessarily framed their project in those terms at the time. No doubt, the tone of Shadows and Fog couldn’t be more different from A Night at the Opera, but the two are continuous in the same way that, say, The Battleship Potemkin and Stalker are continuous, with Allen providing a more sombre and muted riff upon the future that Groucho, Chico and Harpo tried to keep open over the course of their filmography. Like Allen, the Marx Brothers responded to a world in which the possibilities for Jewish representation (let alone Jewish self-representation) were so foreclosed that the only option was to frame representation itself as an inherently discriminatory act. Whereas the Marx Brothers mined that for comedy, Allen here mines it for drama, but just as even the funniest Marx Brothers’ films always had a more unsettling and disturbing subtext, so Shadows and Fog manages to refine a quite bracingly absurd and awry angst out of the its brooding atmosphere and aesthetic.
That’s especially in clear in the final act, as the night gets deeper, the city gets quieter, and the dawn becomes more remote and hypothetical as well. Yet even as Irmy is reflecting to Kleinman that “it’s a strange feeling to be up at this hour,” the fog momentarily clears and starlight briefly floods the streets, in one of the most stunning sequences in Allen’s entire career. At first, they’re seduced by the promises of illumination, but Kleinman and Irmy quickly find themselves compelled to concede that this light is already millions of years old by the time it has reached them, and that any source of comfort it might betoken is already deep in the past, even as that very recognition burnishes Allen’s entire philosophical sensibility to a new aphoristic brilliance: “My father used to say “We’re all happy, if only we knew it.” As the clouds converge and the fog settles again, it’s clearer than ever before that there can be no real escape from this situation – least of all into the past – and that it is useless to wait for dawn to arrive, for the fog to clear, for the serial killer to be caught, or for any of the other events that initially seemed to be promised by the opening of the narrative.
What Allen offers, instead, is an ending that turns the production of the film itself into its own summative spectacle. Having caught the serial killer, hooked up with Irmy, and decided to leave town before the sun rises – all events that are putatively impossible within the logic of the film – Kleinman wanders into the circus tent, where his meets a master magician who reassures him that “people need his illusions like they need the air,” before they both promptly vanish into thin air and the credits roll. It’s a sequence that reiterates how indebted Shadows of Fog is to Alice, Allen’s previous film, which featured many moments at which Mia Farrow’s titular character vanished amidst the streets of Manhattan, subsumed into a disembodied voice that was clearly a dress rehearsal for Kleinman’s dissociation from his own utterances here. By the same token, the fact that Allen stages this final sequence in and around an elaborate network of mirrors also makes it something of a dress rehearsal for the conclusion of Manhattan Murder Mystery, which congeals the cavernous spaces of Shadows of Fog around the last grandly scaled repertory theatre in New York City, and concludes with a similar vanishing act that both appropriates The Lady From Shanghai and complicates it by setting it backstage as Orson Welles’ film is spooling through the projector.
In other words, the conclusion to Shadows of Fog is wonderfully true to the itinerant quality of the film as a whole, which often plays as a stop along the way in Allen’s voluminous filmography. Even the set barely seems to have existed by the time the film ends, evaporating into mid-air and taking on the peculiar and retrospective weight of a collective nightmare, rather than an actual physical space or structure. If, as the magician suggests, cinematic illusion is as necessary as air, then Allen here refuses to ever provide us with quite the right amount or consistency of air, flooding his mise-en-scenes with more and fog over the course of the film, only to evaporate everything in this last final shot is the name of an airiness that is as pellucid, perfected and constrictive as the surface of a mirror. Initially too thick and then too thin to properly breathe, Shadows and Fog seems to have little interest in surviving, and indeed hasn’t survived very well, with most critics now relegating it to the very fringes of Allen’s body of work. Yet that willingness to sacrifice survival for eighty brief minutes is also what makes this one of Allen’s most resonant films when looked at from the right angle – compelling and poignant precisely because it remains marginal across a filmography whose very comprehensiveness was always one of its most constrictive traits.