Bats

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My Mad Scheme to see all the films pictured in Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies — a scheme also known as See REPTILICUS and die! — continues apace with the last of the book’s frontispieces, which depicts Vincent Price in THE BAT. This movie is easily available on cheapskate DVDs, but I’d always resisted because I’d been reliably told it sucked, and hard. Still, it’s an excuse to revisit the previous films of this particular play, Roland West’s THE BAT and THE BAT WHISPERS.

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Scandal first, movies later. West, who had a busy career directing Lon Chaney thrillers and the like, was married to Thelma Todd, a comedienne who co-starred with Laurel & Hardy (numerous times) and the Marx Brothers (twice). One day she was found gassed in the garage. The rumour-mill has ground out theories about mob hits, spousal homicide, suicide and accident. At one point a servant surfaced with the story that the whole tragic affair had been triggered by a badly botched blow job in the West car (I’m picturing, no doubt erroniously, a Laurel & Hardy Model T Ford) — after the drunken Todd inadvertently bit down, West stormed off and slammed the door, forgetting that the engine was running, and Todd fell asleep. Putting aside the unlikeliness of the scenario (it requires more explaining than drunken suicide, anyway), I have to ask, bearing in mind Kenneth Anger’s description of the death of Murnau, why is it that when anyone dies in the western United States, it’s always due to oral sex? I guess this firm mental marriage of b.j. + mortal peril maybe stems from the fact that, as Chaplin discovered, it was illegal in California back then (I believe it’s compulsory now).

Anyway, asides from maybe killing his wife, West directed a silent and a talking version of a somewhat creaky comedy-thriller called The Bat. His first go-round, titled simply THE BAT, is super-stylish, with amazing camera moves across a miniature city and up a skyscraper, which seem to have inspired Tim Burton’s similar views of Jack Palance’s penthouse in his BATMAN. It’s an erudite piece of homage, since West’s films apparently inspired the creation of the caped crusader by Bob Kane. Another movie, THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, was a major influence on the creation of Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. The twist being that West’s Bat is a criminal, not a crimefighter, and Conrad Veidt’s anguished grinner is a hero, not a villain.

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West’s remake is even better, for THE BAT WHISPERS has not only sound but w i d e s c r e e n  — an early process which didn’t catch on at the time: the talkies were still relatively novel and a further gimmick was surplus to audience requirements. The elongated frame shows off West’s expressionistic sets and lighting admirably, and a slow, silent moment when the bat crouches and unfurls his wings benefits enormously from the extended frame. Unlike the only other ’30s W.S. epic I’ve seen, THE BIG TRAIL, the effect is mesmeric, enchanting — as if 1930s filmmakers had travelled forward thirty years and come back with scope technology. (Raoul Walsh in THE BIG TRAIL seems somewhat paralysed by the additional width — he holds the camera as far back as possible then, when the shot can’t possibly be sustained any longer and a closeup seems essential, he cuts to even further back. I kind of feel that widescreen, when it finally caught on in the ’50s, had a similarly disabling effect on Walsh.)

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And then there’s the wild and crazy performance of Chester Morris. Unmasked as the titular fliedermaus, he hisses and grimaces, lit from below like a Halloween kid with a flashlight, hamming up a storm. Why was Chester Morris never ever interesting apart from this scene? He had entire decades before and behind him of failing to elicit the slightest moment of surprise or curiosity in an audience, but here he’s electrifying: that crackling sound you hear is NOT the old soundtrack, it’s the sparks flying from Chester’s tingling skin! “The Bat always flies at night… and always… in a straight line!” What does that even mean? It doesn’t seem to matter.

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Flash-forward to 1959 — never mind World War Two, you can go back for that later — and we find Vincent Price and (joy!) Agnes Moorehead in a remake helmed by screenwriter Crane Wilbur, who has some pretty good credits as scribe. I’m very fond of his B-thriller THE AMAZING MR. X, directed by Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus, and one sees that he also wrote the story for SOLOMON AND SHEBA (didn’t that already exist?) and was one of a small army deployed on André DeToth’s CRIME WAVE (more writers than actors, nearly). Intriguingly, he also collaborated with Roland West on a Lon Chaney vehicle called THE MONSTER. It’s not terribly good, but its weird mismatch of surgical horror and daft comedy anticipates Antony Balch’s grim-n-sick HORROR HOSPITAL.

Wilbur’s BAT entry starts off with a title ZOOMING at us, accompanied by blaring stripper music, a wildly inappropriate and therefor quite welcome choice. Such dynamism lasts only as far as the first 30 frames of the titles, however, and we soon settle down to the plodding exposition of your standard Saturday-night comedy thriller play. Enlivened, it must be said, but the presence of not one but two GAY COUPLES.

The first G.C. we meet is Agnes Moorehead and her Comic Maid, Lenita Lane. Agnes is Cornelia van Gorder, crime writer, “Please don’t call me ‘Corny’ when referring to my books,” and she’s just moved into a dark, scary, mysterious model shot. The model shot is a welcome point of connection with the previous versions, but sadly no stylistic unity is achieved, since all the other exteriors are life-sized, including the log cabin where we meet this delightful pair:

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They’ve gone out “hunting” “deep in the woods” we’re told. The bank manager is cleaning the guns while the doctor, Vincent Price, does the dishes in a fetching mini-apron. The scene takes a surreal turn when the bank manager confesses, casually, to embezzling a million bucks from his own bank. He needs the doc to certify him dead so he can abscond, or something. The doc obliges, shooting his pal dead on the spot so he can pocket the cash. Now he has to collect the money from a hidden vault in the dark, scary, mysterious model shot. Cue plot.

At this point, any residual interest wanes. The comings and goings are rather flatly written and directed, although veteran Joseph Biroc lights it all elegantly and atmospherically, and whenever master-criminal The Bat shows up, in his featureless black mask, things have an additional creep factor. With his no-face look and snazzy hat, he’s a clear precursor to the masked murderer of Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, and his Freddy Krueger finger-blades are a welcome touch, though I miss the unfurling black cape of earlier bats.

The film’s biggest drawback, as well as its most interesting trait — in theory — is its old-fashioned air of pre-Scooby Doo bogus mystery. By 1959 audiences were ready for stronger meat, and were starting to get it…

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3 Responses to “Bats”

  1. I saw The Bat Whispers in its orgonal super-widescreen 70mm format several years back at the Academy here in L.A. and it’s one of my most treasured movegoing experiences. The sets costumes and exceedingly elaborate miniatures used for we call today “special effects’ make Spielberg look like he’s standing still. This is one of Elliot Stein’s favorite movies and when you see it you’ll know why.

    Controversy over exatly how Thelma Todd Todd and whether or not West killed her continues to this day. But one thing is sure — her death ended his career.

  2. I have a pretty good WS VHS of The Bat Whispers, and it is indeed a visual poem — would love to see a projection. The camera moves across the models both render them real, and show up their artifice, just as Tim Burton’s moves do in the first two Batmans (Batmen?).

    Yeah, poor West (if he was innocent!) pretty much faded from the scene.

    Far be it from me to make fun of a typo, but I like “Controversy over exactly how Thelma Todd Todd”, especially as “tod” is German for “death”.

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