A somewhat backhanded “under-appreciation” of Chester Morris over at The Chiseler today. Say what you like about Chester — charmless, dull, stiff and funny-looking — he’s always there for you.
Archive for The Bat Whispers
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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:
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…
So, before I head off for an actual meeting with an actual exec producer, some semi-baked thoughts on Bunuel’s DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID, adapted from Octave Mirbeau’s novel, which I re-saw as part of the Jeanne Moreau retrospective. Actually, I was arguably seeing it for the first time, since my V.H.S. experience was not wide-screen. Bunuel can’t have made many ‘Scope films, but he seems perfectly at home in the wide format. And is there anything more beautiful than black-and-white wide-screen? Maybe it’s just the rarity, since wide-screen came into existence parallel with the dying days of black-and-white so there are relatively few films made in both (although THE BAT WHISPERS is an almost-unique 1930s wide-screen experiment, and the occasional film like THE ELEPHANT MAN has united monochrome and ‘Scope).
I always enjoy this film up until the ending, but this time I was determined to get something positive from the ending as well. I failed. I always get sucked into seeing the film as a detective thriller, which it definitely functions as from the time of the murder onwards — a country house detective thriller, in fact. Of course, the real point is the satirical dissection of French society, and this is terrifically enjoyable. Bunuel’s houseful are all enjoyably strange, and while many people wouldn’t regard the film as surreal at all, there are aberrant moments like the secret chemistry lab belonging to the mistress of the house, where she presumably “minces among bad vats and jeroboams, spinneys of murdering herbs, and prepares to compound […] a venomous porridge” for her husband. Michel Piccoli (with hair! on his head!) is the husband, a pitch-perfect portrait of baffled idiot virility, a surging pillar of testosterone reduced to the infantile by his hormonal geyser.
Moreau is part bitch-goddess, part warm and humane heroine, depending on who she’s dealing with. She seems to live by a version of Raymond Durgnat’s Proletarian Ten Commandments — “Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being out-talked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted.” And she becomes the detective heroine, which is exciting.
Except — and I can’t really call this a spoiler, but look away if you’re worried — she doesn’t catch the killer. The film seems explicitly to identify him at the moment the crime is committed, but since the horrific act itself is literally unshowable, his guilt isn’t 100% certain. At a certain point, one begins to doubt if Moreau has set her sights on the right man, and a conventional thriller would have allowed us to jump ahead and suspect Piccoli, only to produce a third, surprise suspect as the guilty party, someone we had dismissed. This being Bunuel, I would then expect some turnaround that leaves the guilty unpunished and the innocent “getting it in the neck”, to use Joe Orton’s description. The ending we get produces no such twists, allowing a happy ending for the killer but transferring the political subtext from the background, where it has been simmering away very effectively, to the foreground, where it seems rather crude and programmatic. The crash of thunder at the end seems particularly unfortunate, especially as Bunuel’s mastery of surprising sound juxtapositions has been very much in evidence: a screeching flock of unseen schoolchildren, a loud passing train where no train can be seen, and sounds that recur, linking apparently unconnected scenes.
I thought of Bunuel and Carriere’s script for THE MONK, eventually filmed by other hands, which likewise avoids the ending dictated by genre but is actually less startling than the “conventional” punishment meted out in Matthew Lewis’ gloriously excessive Gothic novel. Maybe it’s possible to be too clever with these things. I guess the all-round happiness of the ending — with the fascists on the march — comes closest to THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, which has an absurdly upbeat ending I’m very fond of.
If Jean-Claude Carriere’s script-work with Bunuel, on their first collaboration, doesn’t quite satisfy me, his performance as the village priest is hysterical. I wanted more of him. I wanted him to have his own series of films, dispensing awful, cynical advise to his parishioners in exchange for funds for repairing the church roof. He seems about to advise the mistress of the house on how to satisfy her husband without the painful and abhorrent business of penetration, when the alarm is raised and he’s reduced to uselessly attempting to kick down an oaken door (“Damn it!”) — the lady’s father has dropped dead in his locked bedroom while fetishizing a pair of patent-leather shoes, demonstrating that John Carradine’s advice to his sons — “Never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing” — is not always so easy to follow.
When a character says “I’ve got my reasons,” I was of course reminded of Renoir. So I must watch his version of DIARY, which stars Paulette Goddard and is knocking about the house somewhere. Otherwise this is like a kinky GOSFORD PARK — no bad thing.