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“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

Although it’s a crackling good thriller in its own right (if a somewhat dated one), Roland West’s little-seen 1930 “creepy old house” mystery-thriller The Bat Whispers has two main claims to distinction: (1) It was one of the very first widescreen features, and (2) Bob Kane cited The Bat Whispers, along with Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, as his inspiration for the creation of Batman.[1] (Coming full circle, Tim Burton was obviously heavily influenced by West’s use of miniatures and mobile camerawork in The Bat Whispers when he made his 1989 version of Batman.)

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Like so many old house mysteries, The Bat Whispers had its origins in a hit Broadway play. In this case, the source was Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s 1920 play The Bat, based on Rinehart’s 1908 novel The Circular Staircase. (West first adapted the play as a silent film in 1925 under its original title.) Other successful plays of the period that belong in this particular subgenre were Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard’s The Ghost Breaker (1914), John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary (1922), and Ralph Spence’s The Gorilla (1925). The genre also flourished on UK stages as well, particularly with Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train (1923) and Edgar Wallace’s The Terror (1927). All of the aforementioned plays were adapted as silent films or early talkies or both. The genre was especially popular with the studios in the early days of sound because of their limited settings and plethora of dialogue. (The form was brilliantly lampooned in James Parrott’s hilarious 1930 three-reeler The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. And even Alfred Hitchcock got in on the act with his 1932 thriller Number Seventeen, a surrealistic semi-parody that virtually deconstructed the genre.) [2] The talkie versions of The Gorilla and The Cat and the Canary (retitled The Cat Creeps) both just barely beat The Bat Whispers to the theaters by mere days in November 1930.

A former actor, West was an ambitious, innovative filmmaker, but not a terribly prolific one. He only made 14 movies during his brief 15-year career spanning 1916 to 1931, his only talkies being his last three films. (The Bat Whispers was his penultimate movie.) One of West’s idiosyncrasies was shooting only at night, between the hours of 6:00 pm to 4:00 am. This was not an eccentricity on the part of West, but rather a deliberate effort to avoid any attempts at kibitzing from the studio suits. As Una Merkel (who played the female ingénue in The Bat Whispers) was quoted in Scott MacQueen’s book Between Action and Cut: “He just didn’t want to be bothered with anybody. When he worked at night, there was nobody but him and the company. We all ate together at midnight, everybody at the same table” [3]

Like most innovators, West was inevitably drawn to new technology and The Bat Whispers was his opportunity to experiment with widescreen photography (in this case, the process in question was a 65mm format called Magnifilm) as well as utilizing recent cinematography breakthroughs to bring a mobility to images that were particularly noteworthy in those days when supposedly all talkies were doomed to be static. [4] The state-of-the-art equipment used on the film included a dolly-mounted camera crane and a 300-foot track suspending the camera by cables from overhead scaffolding. West also made creative use of miniature sets which allowed the cameras to give the illusion of swooping up and around buildings and the remote country mansion where the bulk of the story takes place.

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Because very few theaters of the period were equipped to show widescreen films, West covered himself by simultaneously filming an alternate version in standard 35mm. (The cinematographer for the 65mm version was Robert Planck and Ray June did the 35mm version.) For decades, the 65mm version of The Bat Whispers was considered to be lost to posterity, but in 1987, an excellent nitrate print was discovered in the archives of the Mary Pickford Estate, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive performed the restoration work with the result doing full justice to West’s remarkable widescreen compositions.

It’s fascinating to compare West’s silent and sound versions of The Bat. West was enamored of the visual stylization of the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, and his emulation of this approach is apparent in both versions. The silent version, in particular, looks like something UFA might’ve produced, with its deliberately unrealistic sets by William Cameron Menzies. But virtually all of the shots are stationary and relied on editing to go from one portion of a set to another. Not so in The Bat Whispers. There are entire sequences in which the camera is in almost constant motion. Also, the timelessly Gothic sets of the silent version were replaced with slick modern-looking settings, especially apparent in the film’s opening sequences in New York City.

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The first 10-minutes of The Bat Whispers display some breathtakingly stunning filmmaking. Underneath the opening credits, we hear a large clock chiming eleven o’clock. The first shot fades in on the camera pulling back from a miniature of a clock tower looming over the New York skyline. The camera then swings down 90° and starts descending to the street below with its miniature cars and pedestrians. Upon reaching ground level, there’s a cut to an actual location with real cars and people. As a police car pulls up, a police lieutenant about to climb aboard is being harassed by a persistent newsboy hawking the latest news about the notorious criminal known as “The Bat.” The officer blows off the newsboy and gets into the car which pulls away with its siren blaring.

The film cuts to inside the police car as it speeds through the dark city streets. A radio broadcast provides preliminary exposition: The Bat, infamous thief and murderer, has sworn to steal the diamond necklace newly-acquired by millionaire Bell (Richard Tucker) precisely at midnight. A master shot shows the car pulling up to a brownstone apartment building. The lieutenant gets out and asks another cop guarding the building which window is Bell’s penthouse. After the cop points out the lighted window on the top floor, the camera rises straight up the side of the brownstone via an elevated crane and, with the aid of a jump cut, straight into the open window of Bell’s library and up to him as he sits at his desk. Another cut brings us to a close-up of the Bat’s threatening note to Bell: “Greetings, Mr. Bell. If you will be in your library alone at twelve sharp midnight, it will prove your nerve and test my ability to steal the Rossmore Necklace out of your safe. The Bat.”

Cut to a gun sitting on Bell’s desk and a clock reading 11:57 pm. In a wideshot, Bell gets up from his desk, pockets the revolver, and goes to a connecting door to the room beyond where a group of cops and reporters wait with a police captain (DeWitt Jennings). As Bell assures the captain that everything is all right, a radio announcer boasts that the police have obviously outsmarted the Bat because it has reached the appointed hour without the robbery taking place. Bell closes the door, goes back to his desk to check the time (12:05 am), then just to assure himself, goes to open a concealed wall safe.

Cut to a close-up of the open window. A black-gloved hand reaches in, grabs hold of the cord of the window shade, and starts flapping the shade as though a heavy wind is blowing it. Cut back to Bell at the safe with the necklace in his hands. He notices the shade flapping and goes to the window. An over-the shoulder POV shot shows the police on guard in the street below. The camera cuts to the outside of the window as Bell reaches out to adjust the shade and he’s jumped from above by the silhouette of the Bat, suspended from the roof by a rope. A cut back inside the window shows Bell’s lower body writhing as the Bat strangles him. The Bat’s hand reaches in, takes the necklace out of Bell’s dead fingers, and tosses in a folded note.

In the outer room, Bell’s butler (Wilson Benge) is calling out to his employer, accompanied by a lively fox trot coming over the radio. The captain goes to the door and starts pounding on it. Meanwhile, outside the library window, the Bat is climbing up his rope to the roof. Cut back to the outer room as the cops force the door open. Cut to inside the library. The cops and butler rush in and are horrified by the sight of Bell’s dead body slumped in the window. The captain shouts out the window for the rest of the cops to come up to the apartment, while the butler discovers the empty safe now bereft of the necklace. The captain reads the note left by the Bat aloud: “To the police, why waste time chasing rainbows? I always get what I go after. Bell was easy because his clock was fast and you boys were slow. Au revoir, leaving for the country to give the police a rest.” The captain orders his men to “get Detective Anderson” and then declares in apoplectic fury to the gathered reporters, “No cheap crook is gonna make a sucker out of me and get away with it!”

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Dissolve to the clock tower as the hands, starting at midnight, start spinning to depict time passing by. Another dissolve shows us the wheels of a train racing through the night, while yet another dissolve reveals miniatures of the New York skyscrapers speeding by. A cut to a POV shot from the train’s front as it heads down the track approaching a bend with a large billboard declaring the upcoming suburb of Oakdale (more miniatures).Another dissolve has the camera dollying along a row of streetlamps leading up to a large bank (yet more miniatures). Via another dissolve, the camera darts in through an upper window overlooking a dark, shadowy antechamber containing the bank’s vault. (This shot especially reflects the film’s German Expressionism influence.) With the oversized shadow of the Bat looming above, a man enters the chamber, opens the vault, removes a valise, and closes the vault, the man and the Bat’s shadow exiting simultaneously.

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Cut to the bank’s parking lot, with the lurking shadow of the Bat prominently cast over the pavement. The thief hops into his car, there’s a dissolve to an insert shot of the vehicle’s license plate (3007), then back to the master shot as the car pulls out of the lot and up the road. Cut to the Bat silhouetted against the night sky descending by his rope. He gets into his car and takes off down the road in pursuit. A cut inside the thief’s car reveals him pulling a switch activating a smokescreen, which another cut shows emanating from the exhaust. Cut to miniatures of the cars and the country road as the smokescreen envelopes the Bat’s car, throwing it off the track as the thief seemingly makes his escape. Fade out.

Fade in on the front gate of the Fleming estate (the mansion within is this thriller’s obligatory creepy old house) and the thief, with a glance over his shoulder, slipping in through the gate. Cut to further down the estate’s wall and road as the Bat’s car pulls up and a flashlight beam scans the thief’s car parked nearby. A quick insert to a close-up of the beam hitting the license plate, confirming that it is indeed the same getaway car. Silhouetted against the estate wall, the distorted shadow of the Bat lurches towards the gate. (A brief insert cut shows one of the Bat’s feet dragging on the ground.) Cut to the thief creeping up to the window of the mansion’s study. Cut to a closer shot of the thief with his back to the camera peering in the window, then a dissolve into the study, and the story finally gets underway with the film’s first extended dialogue scene. And that’s just the first reel!

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Although some of the dialogue scenes betray the customary staginess of the period, there still remains a considerable amount of creativity exhibited in the scenes where the visual action predominates as the house’s occupants and visitors roam (and sometimes run) through the numerous back hallways, stairwells, chutes, hidden passages, and even the rooftops, with intrigues and double-crosses taking place among the various parties competing for the story’s two MacGuffins, the necklace and the bank swag. The characters involved include Miss Cornelia van Gorder (Grayce Hampton), a caustic, middle-aged dowager who’s rented the Fleming estate for the season; Lizzie Allen (Maude Eberne), van Gorder’s whiny, moronic, and perpetually frightened comedy relief maid; the estate’s feeble-minded caretaker (Spencer Charters, who was unequalled when it came to playing feeble-minded types); Dale (Merkel), Miss van Gorder’s niece, who serves as the traditional damsel-in-distress; Brook (William Bakewell), Dale’s fiancé, a bank teller who’s been implicated in the robbery and is impersonating a gardener in hopes of locating the loot and clearing his name; the sinister Dr. Venrees (sepulchral-voiced, Satanic-visaged Gustav von Seyffertitz); Richard Fleming (Hugh Huntley), the nephew of the estate’s owner who’s in search of a hidden room where the bank funds might be stashed; Detective Jones (Charles Dow Clark), a bumbling hayseed country constable who’s the other comic relief character; a  stranger who’s injured and stricken with amnesia (Ben Bard); and a second masked fiend (S.E. Jennings). And presiding over events on that proverbial dark and stormy night is Detective Anderson (Chester Morris), a cynical, urbane sleuth obsessed with getting to the bottom of the mysterious proceedings.

After a series of melodramatic incidents, culminating in the torching of the estate’s garage, the Bat is finally captured (accidentally by Lizzie) and unmasked. But wait, there’s more! As the cast forms a tableau outside the mansion with the Bat tied to a tree, a curtain closes on the image and the camera pulls back to reveal a proscenium stage. Suddenly, an unseen stage manager starts shouting, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Don’t do that! We’re not through yet! Keep your seats, everybody!” A theater usher sauntering on-stage with a sign is admonished, “Don’t put out that sign! Pull back that curtain! Put on the lights!” The curtain parts to reveal a shadow of a large Oriental urn. “Where is the Bat?” the stage manger screams, to be answered with a “Coming! Coming!” from the actor playing said Bat. A silhouette of the Bat descends on his ever-present rope behind the urn. There’s a burst of flash powder. Then, the actor in question steps forward in evening clothes to address the audience with a tongue-in-cheek speech requesting them not to reveal the surprise ending to their friends who haven’t seen the movie yet because, when that happens, the Bat is “heartbroken and goes around for days killing people without the slightest enjoyment in his work.” If the audience will refrain from spoilers, the Bat “promises not to haunt your homes, steal your money, or frighten your little children. Is it a bargain?” And with that, the “The End” title fades in, with a jaunty jazz tune playing in the background. (This and the aforementioned fox trot are the only music heard during the film.)

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In 1959, The Bat was remade again to take advantage of the horror revival resulting from the release of the old Hollywood horror pictures to television. Written and directed by veteran ‘B’ scenarist Crane Wilbur, this decidedly low-budget affair starred Vincent Price as the doctor (renamed Malcolm Wells), Agnes Moorehead as Cornelia van Gorder, Gavin Gordon (Mystery of the Wax Museum, Bride of Frankenstein) as Detective Anderson, and Darla Hood (the Our Gang comedies) as the female ingénue in her final film appearance. (In a too-cute-by-half touch, van Gorder was reconceived as a mystery writer on vacation.) Although this remake is the one most often seen on television, it has absolutely none of the visual style of its predecessors, and in no way threatenes The Bat Whispers’ status as the definitive version.

Fortunately for connoisseurs of classic cinema, Milestone Film & Video, an award-winning company specializing in releasing restored editions of lost and rare film classics, issued a DVD of The Bat Whispers in 1999, containing pristine prints of both the 70mm and 35mm versions. (The DVD is currently out of print, but new and used copies are still available from Amazon). The movie remains a cultural and historical artifact in addition to being a lot of fun to boot. Just remember, though: “The Bat always flies at night… and always in a straight line.”

[1] Yes, I’m aware that it’s now well known that writer Bill Finger deserves the lion’s share of the credit for shaping the character of Batman as we now know him (even though DC Comics gave Kane the sole credit), but even Finger admitted that the initial basic idea was Kane’s.

[2] Whereas most of these films stuck to their basic claustrophobic settings, it’s typical of Hitchcock’s perverse sense of humor that the last third of Number Seventeen is devoted to an elaborate cross-country chase scene.

[3] Some of this information was derived from Bret Wood’s TCM article on The Bat Whispers. Some caveats, though. Wood claims that West “altered the identity of the culprit from that of the four-year-old silent version of the film.” This is not accurate; although the surname of the character revealed to the masked villain is different in the talkie version, it’s still the equivalent of the same character in the silent film. Also, a warning, if you haven’t seen The Bat Whispers, you should steer clear of TCM’s cast list for the film; the identity of the actor playing the Bat is given away.

[4] West wasn’t the only filmmaker determined to bring camera mobility to the early sound cinema. Lewis Milestone, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Dieterle also went out of their way to avoid the stationary camerawork that plagued so many talkies of the period.

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