Three Flavors of Bat

“The Bat” was a very successful mystery stage-play of the 1920s. It was based upon a novel by Mary Roberts Rinehart called “The Circular Staircase,” which was first filmed in 1916. The play of “The Bat” was itself filmed in 1926 by Roland West. It was an innovative film and its caped and bat-masked super-criminal known only as The Bat apparently inspired Bob Kane to create his super-hero Batman. “The Bat” was an Old Dark House comedy-thriller. It was fast-moving and a bit bizarre. When sound arrived, West re-made “The Bat” as “The Bat Whispers” and this film seems to be the template for all of the comics-inspired super-hero films to follow. The 1930 edition of The Bat dropped the somewhat grotesque bat-mask for a simple hood covering the head and obscuring all but the eyes. Like its silent predecessor, it combined thrills with laughter–in this case, rather more of the former than the latter–and employed innovative and startling camera-work to hide the fact that its plot–a master-criminal hunts for stolen loot in a creepy old mansion with lots of potential suspects, and victims, on hand was definitely showing its age. Despite what has been written about “The Bat Whispers,” it’s a fairly non-violent affair with only two murders to The Bat’s credit. (Both of them richly deserved.) When The Bat is snared by a bear-trap and unmasked, he turns out to be star Chester Morris’ no nonsense big city detective, ostensibly sent to the country to capture The Bat. At the film proper’s conclusion, actor Morris comes onstage out of character to beg that the patrons not reveal the identity of The Bat to their friends. (One wonders if this didn’t inspire James Whale to trot out Edward Van Sloan at the beginning of “Frankenstein” with a word of friendly warning to the audience.)

Crane Wilbur, a B-movie and crime-movie specialist made his own version of the play in 1958. Simply titled “The Bat,” this much-maligned black-and-white “straight” adaptation is a lot better than the critics would have you believe. I believe it to be the unacknowledged inspiration for the Italian giallo thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s. Wilbur’s “faceless” (he wears a stocking over his head) razor-clawed killer even bears a certain resemblance to Bava’s masked killer in “Blood and Black Lace.” Vincent Price, Hollywood’s newly crowned horror star headed the cast and served as chief suspect until his Dr. Wells is himself murdered by The Bat. As in both of the preceding versions of the play, The Bat turns out to be Detective Anderson, played here by Gavin Gordon, the spectacularly hammy Lord Byron of Whale’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” now middle-aged and bald-pated. It’s great fun watching Gordon and Price each attempt to throw suspicion on the other. There is one significant difference in the 1959 film. In both of West’s versions there is a real Detective Anderson who has been blindsided by the Bat who is now impersonating him. Perhaps because he was a crime movie specialist, or perhaps because it is 1959, not 1930, in Wilbur’s version Detective Lt. “Andy” Anderson IS the Bat, not an impersonator. While West’s Bat was a gleeful megalomaniac who stole as much to confound the law as for gain, Wilbur’s Bat is a classic 1950s sort of guy–a bad cop and a career criminal to boot who stashes his ill-gotten gains in the town bank where he’s a member of the board, so he’s sure they’ll be safe–only to have the bank’s president abscond with his, and everyone else’s savings. Thus in a way the Bat is only trying to get back what he sees as “his.” The rest of the loot would be a sort of Finder’s Fee. While in West’s two versions, the Bat moves freely among the cast, Wilbur keeps his masked killers isolated so when he strikes he always seems to coming out of nowhere. The central role of the spinster-dowager who has rented The Oaks for the summer and refuses to be scared off by masked bogey-men was played by Agnes Moorhead, by far the best of the three actresses who played Cornelia van Gorder. Her maid, Lizzie Allen, a major screeching aggravation in the two West films is toned down considerably here, and the murder quotient rises from two to four, with one death, that a young female weekend guest especially shocking. Far from any fancy chases and bear-traps, Wilbur ends his film economically enough with Moorhead’s butler shooting the masked Anderson as he was about to deliver the coup-de-grace to Miss Cornie. The fairly brutal murders, the mostly unlikeable cast of characters and even the jazzy Louis Forbes/Alvino Ray Bat theme all mark Wilbur’s film as a product of its time. It lacks the sheer visual panache and narrative verve of “The Bat Whispers,” but it offers better acting and a genuinely frightening master-criminal.

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