Thursday, December 8, 2011

BEHIND THE MASK

Created in 1930, the mysterious crimefighter known as The Shadow had a long, successful career on radio, in pulp magazines & comic books... and a somewhat spottier career in the cinema. On radio, he was Lamont Cranston, a millionaire playboy and amateur criminologist with the hypnotic ability to "cloud men's minds," becoming effectively invisible. He was aided in his exploits by debutante Margo Lane and his chauffeur/valet, Shrevvy. In the pulps & comics, The Shadow was a cloaked mystery man with a pair of blazing automatic pistols. "Lamont Cranston" was simply one of the vigilante's many aliases, and Margo & Shrevvy were but two of an entire network of agents in his service.

The character first appeared on film in 1937, and headlined a cliffhanger serial in 1940. Six years later, Poverty Row movie studio Monogram acquired the film rights to the character, and released three, low-budget Shadow programmers starring handsome serial star Kane Richmond (SPY SMASHER, THE LOST CITY) in the lead. The second of these B-mysteries, BEHIND THE MASK (1946), has just been released on manufacture-on-demand DVD by the MGM Limited Edition Collection.

When an unlikable newspaper columnist with a sideline in blackmail, Jeff Mann (James Cardwell), is murdered in his own office, and multiple witnesses identify The Shadow as the killer, Lamont Cranston (Richmond) knows he has to find the real murderer and clear his masked alter ego's reputation. As he works his way through Mann's blackmail victims, his investigation is hampered by the "assistance" of his hapless manservant, Shrevvy (George Chandler) and ludicrously jealous fiancĂ©e, Margo Lane (Barbara Reed). 

Directed by Phil Karlson (KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL) from a script by George Callahan (a veteran of dozens of B-movies, including several of Monogram's Charlie Chan films), BEHIND THE MASK is unlikely to please contemporary fans of the popular pulp character. As portrayed by the devil-may-care Richmond, The Shadow is neither as grim and dangerous as the magazine version, nor as sinisterly mysterious as the radio incarnation. In fact, the character rarely even wears his trademark black outfit on-screen. The overall tone of the film is comedic, with very little action, and the mystery takes a definite back seat to the screwball antics of Margo and bumbling sidekick Shrevvy.

Production values are on a par with other Monogram product of the time, with sparsely-decorated sets and thrift shop costuming. Karlson does manage a couple of visually effective sequences, however - specifically a nicely noir-ish, rainy opening and an entertainingly athletic third act fight scene - and at 67 minutes, the pace never really has a chance to lag.

The MGM Limited Edition Collection disc features a fairly worn-looking 1.33:1 "full frame" transfer (the correct aspect ratio). The image is somewhat soft, and there are specks and dirt evident throughout, but rarely to a distracting degree. Audio is a slightly muffled but adequate Dolby 2.0 Mono. There are no extras included.

Shadow completists and collectors may be interested in picking up BEHIND THE MASK, and the title should appeal to fans and collectors of 40s mystery series and Poverty Row thrillers as well. I wish that MGM had chosen to release all three Monogram Shadow films together as a two-disc set, but maybe if this one sells well, they'll offer THE SHADOW RETURNS and THE MISSING LADY at some later date.

BUYBehind The Mask (1946)