There's a killer loose in the city, and he always emerges when it is a foggy night just like tonight. This has led vigilante gangs to roam the streets in the hope that they will catch him before he strangles another victim, but so far they have been unsuccessful. It is this state of affairs that has humble clerk Kleinman (Woody Allen) awoken in the early hours by some of the vigilantes who demand he joins them on their search, and while he is reluctant, he cannot come up with a convincing reason not to, so is forced to put on his suit and venture outside...
Seems nobody was much satisfied with Shadows and Fog when it was initially released, as most could not see past the visual homages to German expressionist cinema of decades before, the Franz Kafka elements and, naturally, the circus reminiscent of occasional Ingmar Bergman works (though curiously Federico Fellini went unmentioned). There's too much of other people's efforts in here, went the complaint, and not enough stuff individual to Allen, and that in spite of the writer-director-star portraying one of his most recognisable incarnations as the hounded lead character, the plot's menace ideal for his wisecracking coward act.
Indeed, the black and white photography, the most striking aspect thanks to Carlo Di Ponti's expert endeavours, conjured up memories of Bob Hope thrillers where he had to negotiate his way around dangerous situations while still managing to keep his sense of humour, actually clinging onto his jokes like a life raft in a hostile ocean. When Kleinman ends up being a suspect, not for the whole string of crimes but as a copycat, it's the ideal nightmare for the Allen style, seeing his meekness and ability to view things from an ironic perspective turn to a liability as the other, humourless characters cannot see what's funny and turn on him.
Another target for those naysayers who didn't like what the filmmaker had done here - and it was his equivalent of a superproduction, splashing the cash on large sets in his most expensive work to that point - was the way that it seemed as if all those celebrities who had been hankering after a role in a Woody Allen movie got their wish. Literally not a couple of minutes went by before yet another familiar face hoved into view, with an all-star cast taking in everyone from Madonna and John Malkovich (at the circus) to John Cusack and Jodie Foster (at the brothel), the only place you would see such an eclectic collection in one film.
Even the bit parts displayed Allen's knack for casting the sort of player who would go on to be more successful, with John C. Reilly and William H. Macy appearing in tiny roles. But if that was a distraction, and many found it to be the case, if you listened to what they were saying there may not have been an abundance of hilarious lines but there were some interesting philosophical observations to be made. It's just that there were a variety of them, rendering this more of a mishmash than anything as slick as its imagery would offer. But that imagery was most captivating, the overall gloom and sinister take on an unnamed city employing a genuine threat to the characters, and it was amusing to see Allen verbally spar with, say, Donald Pleasence for a touch of the macabre, although the business with Mia Farrow's subplot was feeling rather tired by this time. If you could stomach the would-be charming puzzle ending, which was more twee and twinkly, then Shadows and Fog was better than its reputation.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.