Shadows and Fog was Woody Allen’s final film for Orion Pictures after working with them from A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy onwards. Like all of Woody Allen’s films, it has a cast to die for and quite a few actors who would go on to defy the ’90s ‘squint or you miss it’ cameo trap. It ended up becoming one of Woody Allen’s biggest flops in his career, but given that his films for the most part have low enough budgets, that didn’t derail his standard of producing a film per year.
The film has Woody Allen riffing on Frank Kafka and also German Expressionism, with a bit of Fellini thrown in for good measure. There is a vigilante mob that awakes Allen’s character Kleinman, and needs his help to find a serial killer who strangles his victims. Simultaneously, there is a circus in town and Irmy (Mia Farrow) and her boyfriend the clown Paul (John Malkovich) are having a dispute. She walks out on him but is soon is taken in by the local whorehouse. Before long their paths cross.
The cast is really fantastic: John Cusack is great as a student who ups his price in the whorehouse trying to get Irmy to have sex with him. Jodie Foster and Kathy Bates also play prostitutes, while Lily Tomlin is excellent as the madam. Allen also casts it full of excellent character actors like Donald Presence, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly and Wallace Shawn (of My Dinner With Andre fame.) Madonna even has a role as Marie, the circus’s tightrope artist, and is perfect in her too-brief cameo. Peter Dinklage also made his film debut here as a circus dwarf.
However, Allen never quite goes as full-out as he could have. The film is never as surreal as the films it’s riffing on: the set is beautiful but isn’t jagged enough to really reflect the look of those films of the ’20s. Its only real surrealism comes during some of the circus sequences, and these are for the most part the film’s best scenes. It never goes fully Kafkaesque because while Kleinman goes on the run after being accused of being the murderer, he just runs away. There is some existentialism in the dialogue, as in all of Woody’s films, but it never quite has the whole man-against-bureaucracy focus that Kafka wrote about.
Shadows and Fog remains one of Woody Allen’s most intriguing but ultimately frustrating films. It looks great due to Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography and the set design, but I do think Allen plays the film’s aesthetic a bit too safe. It even has a score by Danny Elfman alongside pieces by Kurt Weill from the Three Penny Opera. It looks as good as it ever has with this Blu-Ray release, which includes the theatrical trailer as its sole feature due to Allen’s wishes.