Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Bat Whispers (1930)

One of those early "masterpieces" which, though highly interesting, doesn't quiet hold up to its reputation. Unbelievably enough, Leonard Maltin description of Roland West's film as an "excruciatingly archaic 'old dark house' thriller" in his generally unreliable Movie & Video Guide is on the mark. (He is much kinder in his opinion of Crane Wilbur's 1959 remake The Bat, starring Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price.)
Based on the hugely successful and influential play The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood from 1920—the play in turn based on Rinehart's bestseller of 1908, The Circular StaircaseThe Bat Whispers is West's second film version of the theatre piece; he had previously made a silent version as The Bat in 1926. In all truth, though both of West's films feature a varying amount of interesting if not groundbreaking visuals, neither movie is half as good as the silent version of the other classic "old dark house" comedy-thriller The Cat and the Canary, made by Paul Leni in 1927. (Leni's film was also based on a play, written by John Willard in 1922, which in turn was a rip-off of Rinehart's piece.)
For all the highpoints to be found in West's movies, when comparing his two versions of Rinehart's play to Leni's of Willard's, it is still easy to see that while West was influenced by the Expressionist directors of Germany, Leni was the real thing. Even West's "revolutionary" use of a movable camera (made possible through a camera dolly designed especially for the director by Charles Cline) is less revolutionary than simply a quicker, flashier utilization of a style already mastered by the German director F. W. Murneau.
Still, West does display a fine eye for thrilling visuals and eye-catching compositions; regrettably the creaky source material does much to obliterate the effectiveness of the direction. Likewise, though the film begins with some truly amazing use of miniatures, some superb tracking shots, a fine use of shadows and some excellent dissolves, The Bat Whispers loses much of its visual steam once the action moves into the old, dark house. Once indoors, the stage-bound and overly talky aspects of the already-dated-at-the-time stage play take the upper hand and seriously hamper the fun. As popular as the literary output of Mary Roberts Rinehart was in its day, her product tends to be somewhat turgid; her play is no exception. In general, the visual impact and strength of the images of The Bat Whispers are most powerful when seen as stills or photos; the actual narrative of the movie is so excruciating and the acting so outdated that most of the visual power of the direction gets lost.
The Bat Whispers opens to the chiming of what sounds to be Big Ben. Some unidentified big city is being terrorized by a masked master criminal known only as The Bat, who has announced that he shall steal a necklace from a millionaire that very night. Despite the presence of the police, The Bat carries out his threat before "leaving for the country." A train ride and car chase later—though who is chasing who is never completely explained—we witness The Bat's shadow as he watches someone rob the safe of a bank. Eventually we make it to a huge house rented by the rich socialite Cornelia van Gorder (Grayce Hampton—whose dry delivery saves her performance). Soon, numerous other people show up, including the comic maid (Maud Eburne), the inscrutable Dr. Venner (Gustav von Seyffertitz), van Gorder's niece Dale (Una Merkel, best known for her cat-fight with Marlene Dietrich in Destiny Rides Again (1939)), the drunken caretaker (Spencer Charters), and Detective Anderson (Chester Morris). Thunder claps, lightening flashes, long shadows are thrown against walls and everyone seems to be searching either for the loot taken from the bank (which is hidden in a secret room in the house) or for The Bat, who will stop at nothing—not even murder—to find the money first. (Needless to say, time follows little logic here, as the initial jewel robbery, the theft at the bank and everyone's arrival at the house all seems to happen the same night, when logic would dictate days if not weeks.) The plethora of characters who appear and disappear is meant to help keep the viewer mystified about who exactly The Bat is, but in truth it does little more than annoy and confuse, all the more so due to the excess of badly dated comic performances. The resolution is mildly surprising, but if the viewer pays attention to the gradual visual disintegration of the appearance of a specific character as the night goes on, the revelation can be seen in advance. West adds an odd reference to the theatrical roots of the movie by adding a final scene in which stage curtains close upon the resolution and Detective Anderson comes out to request that the ending not be revealed to others. Otherwise, The Bat will get angry…
The Bat Whispers was not a big hit at the time of its release, supposedly due to a critical and commercial backlash to the overabundance of the old dark house sub-genre everyone was tired of. West's next film, Corsair (1931) was just as unsuccessful; that and the scandal that resulted from the unsolved murder of his live-in girlfriend Thelma Todd are probably the grounds why he stopped making films thereafter and concentrated instead on his restaurant in Pacific Palisades. Though he was never charged for her death, West obviously remained the main suspect in the eyes of the police, for though Todd's death was ruled a "suicide," the case was never officially closed until West died in 1952.

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