Sunday, July 25, 2010

Only The Shadow knows who's in the closet

Invisible Avenger (aka Bourbon Street Shadows) (1957)
Starring: Richard Derr, Mark Daniel, and Helen Westcott
Directors: James Wong Howe and Ben Parker
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When Lamont Cranston--secretly the vigilant The Shadow (Derr)-- receives a plea for help from a New Orleans band leader for help, he is too late to stop his murder. But, along with his mystical mentor Jorgendra (Daniels) he soon becomes involved with a sexy femme fatale (Westcott) who is part of a spy ring set on preventing the rightful president of a Central American nation from retaking his leadership position from the military junta that overthrew his government.

This is one of two movies about venerable pulp hero "The Shadow" I've come across where, inexplicably, his name is not in the title, nor was even any of the iconic imagery associated with him used to promote the film, either now or then. Even if there WERE some sort of trademark issues that came up after the film was made, they could at least have made a picture of a guy in a black suit, wearing a black fedora and wielding a pair of automatic pistols. As it is, there is NO hint anywhere to identify this as a film about the Shadow until you're watching it.

But this one gets even more strange.

The filmmakers made the odd choice of ditching Lamont Cranston's fierce and loyal lady friend Margo Lane in favor of a close friend and mystical mentor, Jorgendra... and the two come off as confirmed bachelors, long-time companions, and just about every shade of ambiguously gay that it's possible to cram into the film's 70-minute running time.

Yes, while the superhero code of "don't ask, don't tell" is in full effect here, there seems to be little doubt that Lamont and Jorgenda were going where no mystery men had gone long before "Brokeback Mountain" was being hyped as wholly original. (Hmmm... I wonder how useful that whole "power to cloud men's minds" was when Lamont and Jorgenda were on the prowl for some man-meat....)

Not that there's anything wrong with an ambiguously gay dynamic duo fighting spies, as it gives rise to plenty of unintentional comedy as the film unfolds. However, getting rid of Margo Lane and replacing her with a the effeminately Euro-trashy mystic is one of those pointless changes that Hollywood idiots love to impose on properties they adapt... a change that serves absolutely no purpose other than the egos filmmakers (who need to show they know better than the hacks who created long-standing, commercially successful properties that they paid a bucket of money to use in a film), as it's a change for the sake of change.

In fairness to "Invisible Avenger", it was originally intended as a TV series pilot, but the series never happened, Perhaps the producers figured they'd start in the early years of the Shadow, and then have him meet the lovely Ms. Lane as the series progressed... and she'd straighten him out with the love of a woman!

Also in fairness to the film, it has a fast-moving plot that never gives the viewers time to get bored. It's also a fair demonstration of why co-director James Wong Howe one of Hollywood's most respected cinematographers for some three decades, as most shots are expertly framed and there is a great use of light and shadow throughout the picture. The use of camera angles to augment the painfully low budget when it came to showing the Shadow's power to "cloud men's minds" is also very cleverly implemented. The acting isn't stellar, but I've seen far worse.

And I suppose I should also say that, in fairness, the filmmakers back in the 1950s probably didn't realize quite how much a pair of flaming love muffins that Cranston and Jorgenda come across as. When viewed with a modern eye, however, I'm certain that anyone who loved "Brokeback Mountain" just for the gay sheepherder aspect will love "Invisible Avenger" just as much. (It might not be a bad idea to pair the films up a part of a "Macho Men in Love"-themed movie night.)

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