Murder is deadly, but it can be entertaining, too.
That describes “The Bat,” a 1959 film written and directed by Crane Wilbur that’s a charming diversion with the bonus of a noteworthy – albeit almost forgotten – legacy in movies, books and theater. Still you may not know the film even though it stars Vincent Price.
That’s right – we’ve got a film named “The Bat” with Vincent Price, but it’s not about a blood-sucking vampire nor is it a horror movie. It’s a murder mystery thriller with a dash of humor and a “spinster” female writer/sleuth who works to solve a murder. If you’re thinking that sounds like Miss Marple or Jessica Fletcher, you’re right: the movie’s 1907 source material, “The Circular Staircase” by Mary Roberts Rinehart, is credited with inspiring that genre. More on that later.
The plot: A mystery writer rents a summer home in a town where a mysterious killer known as The Bat has returned. There’s also a bank robbery and several murders that may or may not be committed by the same killer or even related in any way. Multiple suspects will keep you guessing about whodunit as it did to me the first time I saw the film only a few years ago and fell for this old-fashioned yarn.
* * * *
Vincent Price is his reliable self in a film that showcases Agnes Moorehead in her first feature film starring role. (Though her previous work was noteworthy, even “The Magnificent Ambersons” was considered a supporting role, hence her Oscar nomination as best supporting actress.) Moorehead is wonderful as mystery writer Cornelia Van Gorder (love that name) who has rented a country mansion called The Oaks from bank president John Fleming. She’s there to write and has brought along her trusty long-time maid Lizzie (Lenita Lane) plus a few other servants from her city home.
It’s perfect timing for a mystery writer to arrive. The town is on edge with the return of a faceless killer who has been nicknamed The Bat for ripping out the throats of his female victims. He’s also being blamed for rabid bats that are on the loose.
While at the bank, Cornelia and Lizzie learn that $1 million in securities have been stolen, but no one can reach bank president Fleming who is on a remote fishing trip with Dr. Malcolm Wells (Price).
Cut to the cabin and meet Fleming and Wells. This is an economic film that doesn’t waste time so the mystery of who robbed the bank is shared within the first 7 minutes, quickly followed by a murder.
This scene is our first look at Price as Wells. He’s wearing a flannel shirt with a towel tied around his waist as an apron and washing dishes with hot water from a tea kettle – it’s a sight to behold. But Fleming casually drops a bombshell: He ripped off the bank and he’s got a plan. Fleming will give the good doctor half a million if he helps him fake his death. Wells scoffs, there are threats and suddenly a forest fire is ablaze around them. Before they can escape the cabin, we learn Wells is just as devious as Fleming when he literally takes his shot at all the money.
Back in town, an unfortunate young cashier has been arrested for the bank theft and Cornelia, always looking for book material, gets involved. Her overactive imagination, which has transferred to Lizzie in the 20 years they have worked together, makes for some entertaining moments.
“All his victims died like their throats had been ripped open with steel claws,” Lizzie says with wide-eyed trepidation as she reads the paper.
“That’s a charming little caper, I’ll have to try it sometime – in a book,” Cornelia replies to Lizzie’s horror.
Cue the atmosphere. There’s thunder, wind howling, doors slamming, shutters shuttering, strange noises throughout the big, old house. The women are freaked out but put on brave faces. “That sounds as if there’s someone on the stairs, but I know there isn’t – at least there shouldn’t be,” Cornelia says.
It’s the perfect backdrop for the arrival of The Bat, a striking figure in his dapper suit, fedora, black mask (hence the “man without a face” description) and glove with long metal claws. He’s often in silhouette or standing still outside windows and behind doors. It’s OK if you snicker at some of these shots since they can look a bit posed and silly. And that’s OK, too, because we’re along for the ride.
He breaks in and though Cornelia and Lizzie are unnerved and call the cops, they won’t leave (and neither does he). This is the charming dichotomy of the film’s female characters who may be frightened, but stand their ground against unknown terror and male authority figures. Just lock the bedroom door and we’ll be safe, they think but Lizzie is bitten by a bat let in by, well, The Bat. A call is made to Dr. Wells who is in his garage laboratory researching live bats (gulp).
When Wells leaves to help Lizzie, Lt. Andy Anderson (character actor Gavin Gordon), who we’ve seen skulking about, breaks into the laboratory. Clearly, he suspects Wells of something, but what? It could be for multiple wrongs: Stealing from the bank, killing Fleming or for being The Bat. (He did have bats in this laboratory, after all.)
The tension is palpable between the two men. They don’t like or trust each other, but they do enjoy throwing gentlemanly barbs.
“There are many ways for a bat to get into a house,” Wells says to which Anderson replies: “You ought to know.” The men shoot daggers at each other with their eyes. This is fun.
In the manner of society in a 1950s film, Cornelia and Lizzie are joined for the weekend by Dale Bailey (actress Elaine Edwards), whose husband, Victor, has been arrested for the theft, and Judy Hollander (played by Darla Hood of “Our Gang”), a bank worker who has information that can clear Victor. Surely, there’s safety in numbers.
Wells arrives briefly for coffee and parlor talk. The ever-inquisitive Cornelia talks through how she would write the murder mystery that is unfolding in real time around her. As she concludes that the money must be hidden in a spot created when the house was built, watch for the almost imperceptible tick on the doctor’s face as he realizes he must move fast to find the money. It’s an impressively underplayed but important moment by Price.
To find the hidden space, they call Mark Fleming, a leasing agent and the nephew/heir to the now-dead bank president. Of course, he says he doesn’t know where the blueprints are, yet there he goes sneaking into the house to get them. He’s not alone.
Mark’s appearance gives us another name to add to the suspect list that includes Warner, the chauffeur who has been promoted to butler; Wells, who we know is guilty of at least one murder; and some of the officers hanging around the house.
The four women are about to have an eventful and dangerous evening where they’ll discover a dead body with its throat torn open, be terrorized by The Bat and find hidden passageways and rooms as they work to outsmart the killer or killers. They’ve all taken a page out of Cornelia’s book to stand their ground, no matter how afraid they are. As Dale bravely – and perhaps foolishly – leaves the safety of her room to explore strange noises, she tells Judy that she doesn’t want Cornelia to think “we’re a couple of hysterical women.”
The final quarter of the film has a lot going on and for the viewer it’s much like a haunted house attraction where it’s not all scary, but has its moments so you willingly go along for the ride.
Film scholar and professor Jason A. Ney, who contributes to the new home video release from The Film Detective of “The Bat” describes this moment as “leaning in” to a film when it starts to become ridiculous. “The more it does that, the more you enjoy it if you’re able to judge it on a different meter,” Ney says. “You can either lean in to that type of nonsense or shut the movie off. I think it’s much more fun to lean in.”
So do I.
* * * *
The long history of this film goes back to 1907 with the publication of “The Circular Staircase” by Mary Roberts Rinehart.
As part of The Film Detective release, Ney provides an essay in the accompanying booklet and a commentary that gives much insight into the complex yet interesting background of the original story by Rinehart, how it made its way from book to stage and film multiple times, the changes among the versions, and how it led the way for other female authors such as Agatha Christie to write their own female sleuths and helped create the old dark house film genre. All of that could fill multiple chapters in a book, so I’ll give you the ToniNotes version of the background.
In 1915, a silent film version of “The Circular Staircase” was directed by Edward LeSaint.
Rinehart and Avery Hopwood began adapting a play under the new title “The Bat,” in 1917, which made it to the stage in 1920. It was so successful – its initial Broadway run lasted nearly 900 performances and it was performed in London – that it spawned imitators including “The Cat and the Canary” and “The Monster” which both hit the stage in 1922. “The Monster” was written by Crane Wilbur, the same director of the 1959 film of “The Bat.” (The play would also be revived in 1937 and ’53.)
The 1917 play was made into the 1926 silent film “The Bat” starring Jack Pickford, brother of Mary, and directed by Roland West. With the advent of the sound era, West remade the film under the title of “The Bat Whispers” (1930) starring Chester Morris and Una Merkel. This film has significant importance in pop culture since “Batman” co-creator Bob Kane said it helped inspire the creation of the superhero.
Nearly 30 years after “The Bat Whispers,” Wilbur would write and direct his 1959 film, adding more of a horror element including the claw (in previous versions, the killer shot his victims).
The home video release
The Film Detective presents a great restoration of “The Bat” from an original 35mm print. It comes with bonus features that share the accomplishments of author Mary Roberts Rinehart and writer/director Crane Wilbur, who both deserve more attention.
In addition to the commentary by Ney, it includes a fascinating featurette on Wilbur from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures that explores his multifaceted career that started as a handsome young actor in “The Perils of Pauline” through his writing and directing in film noir (“He Walked by Night”) and horror/sci-fi (“House of Wax” and “Mysterious Island”).
It also includes nine archival radio episodes starring Vincent Price and they are worth the price of the disc on their own. Episodes – dated from 1943 to ’56 – are from such radio dramas as “Suspense,” “Escape,” “CBS Radio Workshop” and “Hollywood Star Time.” I was especially eager to hear the 30-minute 1946 version of “The Lodger,” and it didn’t disappoint. Wait until you listen to a jaded Price and a romantic Lurene Tuttle each tell their version of the Cinderella story in the 1956 radio program “If the Shoe Fits.” It’s wonderful.
“Movies are Murder” blogathon