THE BAT WHISPERS
A silly mystery/comedy from
1930 that’s an absolute stunner from a photographic standpoint, with bold
expressionistic visuals and wildly innovative camerawork. It was also the
alleged inspiration for Batman.
Writer/producer/director Roland West, who thrived during the 1920’s, was
known for carefully designed, experimental visuals reminiscent of German
Expressionist pictures like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI. Among West’s features
were the 1925 Lon Chaney vehicle THE MONSTER and the iconic 1929 gangster drama
THE BAT WHISPERS was West’s second-to-last film. It
was a remake of his 1926 silent THE BAT, which was based on a popular play by
Avery Hopwood and Mary Roberts Rinehart. THE BAT and THE BAT WHISPERS inspired
another much later remake, the 1959 Vincent Price starrer THE BAT, and are
widely believed to have provided Bob Kane with inspiration for the character and
exploits of Batman.
In keeping with West’s mania for experimentation, THE
BAT WHISPERS was lensed and exhibited in a decidedly experimental format:
widescreen 65mm (a rare innovation back in 1930). But it was also filmed in
standard 35mm, shot by a separate cinematographer and released concurrently with
the widescreen version. The Image DVD release contains both versions, and,
after viewing them back to back, I’ll have to say the widescreen cut is
infinitely preferable, and not just because it was better restored. It’s simply
better in every respect.
The Bat is a feared criminal who commits crimes outfitted as a bat. After
stealing a priceless necklace from a man’s house one night--literally right
under the noses of the man and a cordon of police--the Bat witnesses a bank
robbery. He follows the robber to the home of “Banker” Fleming, where the widow
Cornelia is staying with her niece Dale and goofball maid Lizzie.
Lizzie believes the house is haunted, and is further convinced upon
spotting the Bat creeping around outside. The Bat hurls a rock through a window
with a note exhorting Cornelia and her family to vacate the premises, and a
voice issues from a behind a painting to reiterate the warning.
The shady Dr. Venrees arrives to inform Cornelia about the bank robbery,
and then the glowering Detective Anderson shows up. Cornelia explains to him
that she thinks Banker Fleming’s son is trying to frighten her out of the house.
Around this point Dale discovers a hidden room behind a fireplace. There
she confronts the Bat--and Banker Fleming, who the Bat shoots and kills.
Apparently Fleming and Venrees were in on the bank robbery together, as
Detective Anderson deduces. But this leaves the Bat, who’s still at large...
This is very likely the masterpiece of director Roland West, whose
filmography contains many recurring themes. The old dark house setting and
whodunit storyline directly recall other West opuses like THE GORILLA and THE
CAT AND THE CANARY--both, like THE BAT WHISPERS, adapted from stage plays.
Unfortunately, the play in this case is really dumb. It’s packed
with moronic comic relief in the form of a retarded maid, and a mystery killer
whose identity isn’t exactly difficult to spot (one of the actors is always
glowering menacingly into the camera--plus this particular actor is the
virtually only man left alive by the time the “surprise” ending arrives).
But West’s visuals have never been more compelling. He favors lengthy pre-steadicam
tracking shots, particularly at the beginning, in which the camera drops
straight down from a dizzying height onto a (miniature) street stocked with
West’s masterly use of light and shadow was equally unprecedented,
particularly in one stunning sequence set within a hidden room. In this scene a
woman confronts the Bat, who appears as a giant spread-winged shadow that
gradually shrinks down to human size, draws its “wings” into itself and slowly
advances toward the terrified damsel. It’s a truly amazing sequence, certainly
one of the highlights of the era.
One could argue that such visual flamboyance serves only to detract from
the story and characters. I’d counter-argue that there really isn’t a whole lot
here in the way of story or characters, so the more distracting the visuals are
THE BAT WHISPERS
Director: Roland West
Producer: Joseph M. Schenck
Screenplay: Roland West
(Based on a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart, Avery Hopwood)
Cinematography: Ray June (35mm), Robert H. Planck (65mm)
Editing: Hal C. Kern, James Smith
Cast: Chester Morris, Gustav Von Seyffertitz, Una Merkel, Richard Tucker, Wilson
Benge, Maude Eburne, William Bakewell, DeWitt Jennings, Sidney D’Albrook, S.E.
Jennings, Grayce Hampton