Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Whispering Shadow

Sometimes there are small pleasures to be found in the most modest of productions. "The Whispering Shadow" is one of them. This 1930’s serial starring Bela Lugosi certainly isn’t on par with the Republic or Universal serials of the day, but it's not without a certain charm. And that’s the point of this post – getting enjoyment out of the commonplace.

"The Whispering Shadow" is a typical chapter serial. Such films were meant to be viewed in installments, and an overly complicated plot is just the thing to keep things moving -- especially when each chapter's end is punctuated by the seeming demise of the hero.

In this case, the mysterious masked figure known as the Whispering Shadow is after a MacGuffin and killing and/or attacking people in the process through radio waves. Radio was the hot technology back then, a character working in a radio lab served the same function as a computer geek in a modern film.

The MacGuffin's a crate hidden in the warehouse of an international shipping company. A shipping company with their very own radio research laboratory on the top floor (!) of the building. I found the infatuation with the latest technology charming in a retro fashion. The bad guys use an autogyro (precursor to the helicopter), and the special effects with models are laughable –- but in a fun way, as this first clip shows.

There’s a lot of action, though. And it's truly exciting to watch. In 1935, there was no CGI. The stunts were real.

Look at this scene involving a foiled hijacking. Sure, the acting's laughable. Malcolm McGregor barked all his lines in a manner most often seen in community theater.

But the stunts more than makeup for the wooden declamations. Check out the chase with the stuntman hanging on to the top of the truck, or the leap onto the car. Most of that would involve some CGI and green screen these days -- but they are, charging down a dusty road and clinging on for dear life.

And then there’s the following scene. Viva Tattersall walks towards a car she thinks she sees her father in. Rather than be discovered, the man floors it and drives away. Look at the shot carefully. Sure, it’s a stunt woman, but look how close the car comes to her! Only her skill prevented a serious injury.

I won’t give the plot away (it would take another entire post just to explain it), but the denouement is so over the top it almost seems like a parody. Almost all the surviving cast members reveal they’re Not Who They Seem To Be. Only the hero doesn't have a secret identity!

This was second tier stuff even back when it was released. Mascot wasn't a big studio, and they shot the whole thing -- very economically -- in just 18 days. Nevertheless, "The Whispering Shadow" provided me with plenty of viewing pleasure, if not always in ways intended by the studio. And because it's out of copyright and available for free from Archive.org, I more than got my money's worth.

- Ralph

Day 73 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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