Shadows and Fog Review

Mark Boydell has reviewed the Region 1 release of Shadows and Fog, one of Woody Allen’s most expensive films featuring his most impressive cast to date (John Malkovich, John Cusack, Jodie Foster and many more). Woody also stars in the lead but for once is not a New-Yorker but an inhabitant of an Eastern European city.

The story:
A killer is roaming the streets of an Eastern European town, strangling his victims in the foggy night. The citizens and the underworld are starting to organise themselves into vigilante groups to try and find the culprit. Every single able-bodied man is required to join them. A strange circus has also arrived on the edge of town whilst the local doctor (Donald Pleasance) is hoping to achieve fame and fortune by bringing the answer to the nature of evil if he gets to dissect the killer with his scalpel. Tensions are mounting in the town and one can feel that sooner or later someone is going to be lynched – guilty or not… Sounds quite an exciting story, doesn’t it? However, if you’re expecting a Hollywood remake of Fritz Lang’s M, you’re in for a bad surprise as this is a Woody Allen film.

For this 1992 release, Allen managed to assemble an amazing cast of notable Hollywood actors with the likes of John Malkovich as a clown, Mia Farrow as a sword swallower and John Cusack as a lustful student. Added to these leads are some notable cameos and minor roles from the likes of Madonna, Kathy Bates, Julie Kavner and Jodie Foster. But being a film by the neurotic New-Yorker, this wealth of talent comes as little surprise along with the fact the entire project was a commercial flop in the US! Allen also plays the lead in this film as an “Allenesque” man caught up in the middle of a vigilante group but not knowing what he’s supposed to do as he aimlessly wanders through the foggy streets.

Allen for once opted to shoot the entire film in the studios (in New York of course!) and warranted the biggest set ever constructed in the city. Along with the choice of filming in B&W, this seems to have been a very good choice as the film does not fall into the kitsch style as some of his previous ventures did (Love and Death, Sleeper) and holds up visually to repeated viewings. The story is in fact based on a short play (Death) he wrote at least a decade before this was filmed. The film is not as painfully serious as some of his other films (Interiors and to a lesser extent, Crimes and Misdemeanors) nor as irritatingly slapstick as his early efforts but does it strike a happy medium? Plotting is probably not Allen’s forte so the film does seem at times disjointed but at least it doesn’t fall apart badly. Probably not a major Allen film (his highest points being in my opinion Hannah and her sisters, Manhattan and Radio days – all set in a New York well known to Allen), but still a highly enjoyable watch.

The DVD:
The image:
The transfer is anamorphic and in its original aspect ratio. This is worth noting as only a few of Allen’s films have been released in widescreen on VHS (my original copy of this was a pan-and-scan budget copy). The image quality is an improvement but still shows a certain amount of artifacating and does seem quite grainy at times. One bizarre thing I noticed is that the transfer is unusually dark – forcing you to turn up the TV’s brightness. I’m positive it wasn’t that dark when I saw it on screen but as that was almost 10 years ago I could be wrong. As this is one of Allen’s best looking films I would have liked a slightly better transfer but at least it’s viewable and only obsessives will find it distracting.

The sound:
Allen’s films have all been invariably filmed in mono so I’m never expecting much. It’s a DD mono soundtrack which is sufficient but won’t be giving your system too much of a workout! It still sounds quite powerful especially with the opening tune – Kurt Weill’s “Cannon song”.
There’s also a French and Spanish soundtrack. Listening to a dubbed Allen is as agreable in my mind to biting on tinfoil with a mouthful of fillings – and having had a listen to them, they do have the advantage of being hilariously bad. Thankfully, French and Spanish subtitles are also included for the more discerning audiences.

The menus:
These are very basic and non-animated with stills from the film in the background. As the DVDs of Allen’s films are invariably bare-bones, it would be nice if the studios made an extra effort with the menus at least but I suppose making them basic may help the DVD’s price stay low… There’s also 16 chapter stops which is ample especially as the film is less than 90 minutes long

The extras:
Just the American trailer in full screen format and dreadfully transferred. Is it just me or do most DVDs make a point of honour in not making any effort whatsoever when transferring trailers? Is this a way of making the customer aware that the film’s transfer could have been a lot worse and making them count their blessings? Although Allen’s trailers are sometimes made up from original material (like the Bananas trailer – a spoof interview of him talking about the film), this is a run of the mill trailer. I suppose at least it’s there! The inlay card is a nice suprise though: although only a 4 page booklet it does give some background to the filming though drawing heavily from Stig Björkman’s excellent book of interviews with Allen, Woody Allen on Woody Allen.

Most Woody Allen fans will buy this regardless of the quality: it’s the first release I think that respects the film’s original aspect ratio and as videos tend to wear out pretty fast this is (hopefully) a durable format to keep it on. As this film hasn’t yet been released in Zone 2 is it worthwhile waiting? Well, Allen will probably never release any deleted scenes so the best amount of extras we can expect is some interviews being included. Not even the wildest optimist will ever expect a commentary track out of him as Allen will never watch his films after completion. So when and if the zone 2 version is released I very much doubt it would be much different from the present DVD.
For those who are unfamiliar with Woody Allen, this may not be the best film to introduce you to his work as it’s quite atypical in many ways. Probably his more recent releases would be better introductions to his vast body of work.

Mark Boydell

Updated: Oct 14, 2001

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