Wednesday, October 31, 2007

THE BAT (1959)

"The Bat" was a Broadway hit in 1920, based on the 1908 novel "The Circular Staircase" by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It's been officially made into a movie three times, and has unofficially been an influence on any number of "old dark house" comedy-thrillers in which bad guys are trying to scare good guys away from a mansion for some nefarious purpose. Roland West's 1930 version, a remake of his own earlier silent version, was one of the first films shot in a widescreen process (65mm "Magnifilm"). The movie, which I reviewed once here back in 2002, and have re-watched, is very interesting visually but dramatically it bogs down rather quickly. The basic thrust of the plot as noted above (bad guy scaring good guys out of a house) is simple, but this film confuses the issue with two separate narratives that always seem a bit out of sync with each other.

First we see a visually breathtaking sequence in which master criminal The Bat steals a valuable necklace from a well-guarded safe. He then announces he's going to the country for a rest. Then, in another remarkable looking scene, we see a bank robbery which is being witnessed from above by the Bat, though he doesn't actually take part in it. In plot thread #3, a rich lady (Grayce Hampton), her nervous maid (Maude Eburne), and lovely niece (Una Merkel), have rented a large and supposedly haunted house in the country from banker Fleming, whose bank we saw robbed. It's the house that ties the other plots together: the bank crooks have hidden their stash in a secret room in the mansion, and the Bat infiltrates the household in order to get his hands on it. So actually there are at least two different people trying to get Hampton and friends out of the house, but on the stormy night on which the rest of the movie takes place (in almost real time), the mansion winds up hosting quite a crowd, including Merkel's boyfriend, a banker who has been accused of stealing the money; a possibly sinister doctor, well played by Gustav von Seyffertitz ; an inept private investigator; a slick if intense police inspector (top-billed Chester Morris); along with the son of the banker, a caretaker, a butler, and a couple of other cops. There are secret passages, creepy shadows, and a spooky bat costume (which was an influence on Bob Kane's original conception of Batman), as well as good use of a speedily moving camera, a few nifty overhead shots, and nice miniature sets. Unfortunately, most of the dialogue scenes get bogged down because the camera stops and shoots everything in medium shot with very few close-ups (which, along with murkily-lit sets, made it occasionally difficult for me to tell some actors apart). I found the mix of thrills and humor to be awkward, with Eburne's comic-relief maid especially irritating. Nevertheless, it is worth sitting through, as the climax, which involves a fire and a bear trap, is pulled off nicely, and there's a cute "don't give away the surprises" epilogue, which happens in front of a theater curtain, highlighting the staginess of much of the film. Actually, the film's main liability may be its total lack of background music, not unusual for the era. [VHS]

The 1959 remake, a B-production from start to end, does at least streamline the narrative, dispensing with the initial necklace robbery, though keeping the two separate bad guys who are still after loot hidden in a secret room in a mansion. Agnes Moorehead is the rich lady, here a famous mystery writer, Lenita Lane is a somewhat less irritating maid, Gavin Gordon is the police inspector, and Vincent Price is the doctor. As in the earlier film, The Bat's identity isn't given away until the end, but in this version, the identity of the other villain and the backstory to the bank robbery are both made clear from the get-go, which helps narrative coherence. The action takes place over the period of several days rather than one incredibly eventful night, and is framed as the after-the-fact writing-up of the story by Moorehead, perhaps for publication as her next bestseller. Except for one brief shot of the house which is clearly a miniature and possibly done in homage to the earlier film, this one lacks any real atmosphere. The sets are all a little bit overlit, so the place rarely feels like very dark (or even old). It helps to think of this film as a play shot for television, even though it was a theatrical movie. Price is fine, though this is one of his rare films in which he doesn't survive to the end. Surprisingly, Moorehead is disappointing here; she is often taken to task for chewing the scenery, but for my taste, she doesn't chew enough here--it seems like she felt this was beneath her, and her tone is wobbly throughout, with a couple of flubbed lines left in. Neither of these is a great movie, and the biggest problem for viewers today may be that the set-up has been overused. However, you could do worse, and either version could make for a decent Halloween movie night choice. [DVD]

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