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Blu-ray Review Round-Up: Films by Shirley Clarke, Miklós Jancsó, Akira Kurosawa & more!

Magic BoxThe Magic Box: The Films of Shirley Clarke (1929-1987)
Milestone Films

Milestone’s series of Shirley Clarke releases is one of the great passion projects of the home video era. That fact is vigorously reaffirmed by the fourth volume, which collects experimental shorts, documentaries, home movies and rare material not seen in decades, and comes close to completing Clarke’s extant filmography on Blu-ray. (The one major piece missing: the Frederick Wiseman-produced The Cool World [1963], which doesn’t have a commercial release from Wiseman’s Zipporah Films.)

Like Clarke’s genre-puncturing and form-stretching The Connection (1961), Portrait of Jason (1967) and Ornette: Made in America (1985), the films in Milestone’s fourth volume reveal a filmmaker deeply comfortable with straddling worlds, whether that means embracing the fundamental elasticity of documentary or filming other artistic disciplines — here, theater and dance — in ways that complement their strengths while remaining cinematic.

This compulsively watchable three-disc Blu-ray set begins with a disc of Clarke’s experimental work, including a variety of city-symphony riffs from the ’50s and some mind-bending dispatches from the early video era. Her editing prowess gets an early showcase with Brussels Loops, a compilation of three-minute shorts created with D.A. Pennebaker for the 1957 Brussels World Fair; each bristles with energy whether showcasing feats of American architectural beauty or slyly undercutting consumerist inventions.

The surreal collage of Bridges-Go-Round, presented in several versions, is one of the great avant-garde architecture films, while Skyscraper takes a more straightforward approach to the industrial film. The newly rediscovered Butterfly, with its scratched celluloid and high-pitched soundtrack, is a brief primal scream against the Vietnam War.

Two video pieces feature acclaimed experimental playwright Joseph Chaikin’s collaborations with Sam Shepard (Tongues, Savage/Love), and Clarke’s restless special effects distort the image to fascinating ends. These are singular documents, but the most eye-opening film on the disc might be Scary Time, commissioned by the UN to promote UNICEF giving on Halloween, but banned by the UN for getting too real. Clarke’s use of close-ups and her intercutting between Halloween celebrations and images of famine are disquieting and startlingly confrontational.

Disc two revolves around Clarke’s first passion: dance. Her earliest forays into filmmaking can be seen here, including the unfinished Fear Flight with Beatrice Seckler and her first completed short, Dance in the Sun, starring Daniel Nagrin. Clarke’s continued interest in capturing movement can be seen in the lovely postcard In Paris Parks, presented alongside outtakes and footage from a second, unfinished Paris film.

This disc gets even more interesting with a turn into experimental territory, first seen in the layered imagery and unreal colors of Bullfight, with Anna Sokolow. Footage from the unfinished The Rose and the Players hints at Clarke’s desire to marry some experimental techniques with a narrative told through dance. Four collaborations with choreographer Marion Scott combine modern dance with Clarke’s film and video experimentation.

The final disc could be largely thought of as bonus material, with the bulk consisting of silent home-video footage of Clarke’s childhood, wedding, vacations and her appearance in Agnès Varda’s Lions Love (1969). There are two proper films here though, a once-lost children’s adventure short Christopher and Me and the Oscar-winning Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World, which depicts two college speaking engagements from the last year of the poet’s life. The film, which was taken away from Clarke during editing, is certainly on the conventional side, particularly with regards to its obvious narration, but a segment where Frost remarks on the artificiality of documentary-making has Clarke’s fingerprints all over it.

This Herculean feat of film scholarship and curation also looks largely remarkable. Milestone’s 1080p, 1.33:1 transfers are sourced from a variety of materials, but most of the non-video footage looks convincingly film-like, with solid levels of fine detail and clarity. Damage never surpasses expected levels of speckling and fine scratches. A few highlights: the brilliant, deeply saturated colors of the Brussels Loops and the Paris films, and the excellent grayscale reproduction in Robert Frost, restored by UCLA and the Academy Film Archive. The set is accompanied by a booklet with helpful contextual notes about the films.

Milestone Films / 1929-1987 / Color and black and white / 1.33:1 / 480 min / $119.99

DreamsDreams (1990)
The Criterion Collection

If only because his filmography is so full of major works, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams generally feels like a minor one. Anthology films often do.

Still, this collection of eight stories, inspired by Kurosawa’s own dreams and folk legends he heard growing up, is a thoroughly enjoyable filmgoing experience, particularly viewed on Criterion’s new Blu-ray, which really allows the vivid tableaux to shine in all their colorfully transfixing glory. Even when some of the segments dip into trite sentiment or obvious polemic, Dreams is always interesting to look at.

Focusing on man’s relationship to nature, the fleeting nature of joy, the solitude of creating art, humans’ capacity for regret and their even larger capacity for destruction, Dreams reveals an artist working in a deeply contemplative mode. This is a film rooted in melancholy when it’s not given over to outright pessimism, though by its conclusion, Kurosawa seems to have reached a sense of peace by looking backward.

There’s an otherworldly quality to the early segments that make them especially dreamlike: A young boy (Toshihiko Nakano) disobeys his mother to spy on a fox wedding processional, the figures emerging from the mist in a deliberate, regimented line; an adolescent boy (Mitsunori Isaki) laments his family’s chopped-down peach-tree orchard and receives a visit from dozens of life-size dolls; a man (Akira Terao, who plays the protagonist in the rest of the segments) finds himself nearly paralyzed by a blizzard and receives a visit from the mythical Yuki-onna (Mieko Harada).

The dream logic and airy feel of the early vignettes dissipate as the film turns more overtly political in segments that are plenty surreal, but not exactly dreamlike. A soldier’s encounter with a zombie platoon full of dead men he’s responsible for is haunting and heartbreaking, with a caustic view of the long-term effects of war. Two stories about nuclear war and its aftermath are comparatively heavy-handed.

Famous faces pop up in several other stories, including Martin Scorsese as Vincent van Gogh, framed alongside Terao’s painter in brilliant fields of color, and Chishu Ryu, who rarely worked with Kurosawa, as a voice of serenity in the film’s lovely closing segment.

Even for those who might be lukewarm on the film, Criterion’s edition of Dreams has a ton to like, beginning with the 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, sourced from a new 4K restoration. The colors in this transfer are lush and vibrant, with eye-popping reds and yellows especially standing out. In keeping with what seems to be a recent trend, blue colors do tend toward the teal side of the spectrum, but it’s not overwhelming. Grain is beautifully rendered, image clarity and sharpness is strong and the transfer looks impressively film-like throughout. The 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is crisp and fairly dynamic.

The extras here are also formidable, beginning with a newly recorded audio commentary from Stephen Prince that is positively packed with information. The only time Prince pauses is to allow us to hear a line of dialogue in the van Gogh sequence; otherwise, he fills every available second with a wealth of information on Kurosawa’s approach, the film’s debt to Noh and Kabuki theater, the cultural and political climate it was created in and the film’s place among Kurosawa’s career.

Also on the packed disc: A 150-minute making-of, featuring tons of on-set footage, from House (1977) director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi (in SD); 2011 documentary Kurosawa’s Way, in which longtime translator Catherine Cadou interviews tons of legendary filmmakers — Abbas Kiarostami, Theo Angelopoulos, Clint Eastwood and Hayao Miyazaki among them — about Kurosawa’s legacy; new interviews with production manager Teruyo Nogami and assistant director Takashi Koizumi; and a trailer. A hefty booklet includes an essay by Bilge Ebiri and the script for an unfilmed ninth segment, “A Wonderful Dream.”

The Criterion Collection / 1990 / Color / 1.85:1 / 120 min / $39.95

ElectraElectra, My Love (Szerelmem, Elektra, 1974)
Second Run

Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó, whose work is well represented on the Second Run label, is renowned for his long takes, and that quality is especially evident in Electra, My Love, a reworking of the Greek myth that unfolds in just a dozen shots over the course of 74 minutes.

This transfixing film pushes the boundaries of the medium and emerges as a truly interdisciplinary work, almost as reliant on modes of experimental theater and dance as it is film — though it’s still foremost a cinematic work, as the glorious camera swoops and crane shots can attest to.

The Electra myth is one of the most enduring in Greek mythology, with major versions by Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles and numerous adaptations since. Jancsó’s take doesn’t deviate from too many fundamental details: Electra (Mari Törőcsik), the daughter of deposed and murdered king Agamemnon is harassed and humiliated by his usurper, Aegisthus (József Madaras), but the arrival of her thought-dead brother Orestes (György Cserhalmi) presents an opportunity for revolution.

Jancsó’s fluid approach to storytelling adds a pointedly political anachronistic conclusion and reframes a familiar story in a fresh way, pushing down the importance of narrative coherence and personal identification with characters to look at the tale from a grand perspective. The film uses hundreds of extras, often in tightly choreographed movement, as Jancsó uses masses of humans to portray oppression’s effect on a population.

Shot entirely outdoors in the Hungarian steppe, Electra, My Love is populated with numerous frames that are as stunning as they are odd — bodies, often nude, huddled together or prostrate or gathered near a pool of blood, a hillside ablaze with candles, a tyrant hoisted atop a giant ball — but even more arresting is the way Jancsó’s camera navigates these scenes, each long take a miniature feat of architecture. Letting these images wash you over you makes for 74 minutes of cinematic ecstasy.

Second Run presents Electra, My Love in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from the Hungarian Digital Archive and Film Institute’s new 2K restoration. The region-free disc presents an image that is very clean, with stable, if somewhat muted colors. Fine detail isn’t remarkable, as there’s a persistent slight softness to the image, but the film looks largely very good, and Second Run’s disc easily outclasses previously available home video versions. The 1.0 uncompressed mono soundtrack is just fine at handling the post-dubbed sound.

The one on-disc extra is a new interview with cinematographer János Kende, who shot a number of Jancsó’s films and talks about his working experience with him, the process of shooting long takes and Jancsó’s legacy. An included booklet features an essay from Peter Hames.

Second Run / 1974 / Color / 1.66:1 / 74 min / £19.99

DivorceChildren of Divorce (1927)
Flicker Alley

Crisscrossing love lives of the wealthy and beautiful are on display in Children of Divorce, almost a perfectly pure confection of silent-film melodrama starring Clara Bow at the height of her powers. Made directly after It (1927), which features Bow’s signature role as an irresistible flapper girl, Children of Divorce is a near-shameless combination of sex appeal and lifestyle porn, hung on an impressively overwrought framework that doesn’t just tug the heartstrings; it threatens to siphon the tears out of your eyes itself.

Lest that sound like a pan, let’s be clear: Children of Divorce is an utter delight, especially if you enjoy ogling the preternaturally attractive visages of Bow and a young Gary Cooper, which come through in stunning clarity in Flicker Alley’s new Blu-ray release. Only the second Bow film to get a US Blu-ray (the other being Wings), this disc makes it incontrovertibly clear that Bow knew exactly how to deploy her impish charm for maximum appeal.

Directed by Frank Lloyd, with uncredited reshoots by Josef von Sternberg, Children of Divorce amps up the emotion with a frame story about American children sent to live in a Paris “divorce colony,” a sort of orphanage/summer camp hybrid that allowed newly single parents to go live it up for a while. Adorable moppets with quivering lips make up at least five percent of this film, and Joyce Coad, who played Pearl in Victor Sjöström’s The Scarlet Letter and stars as the younger version of Bow’s character, looks like she’s trying to crush your heart between her tiny fingers as the camera holds steady on her face.

Flash forward, and Kitty Flanders (Bow), rich heiress and best friend Jean Waddington (Esther Ralston) and wealthy playboy Teddy Larrabee (Cooper) reunite for the first time as a trio since they were kids. Jean and Teddy have a residual mutual attraction that starts to regain steam, but Kitty, egged on by her serially married mom (Hedda Hopper in a brief cameo), is determined to make Teddy her first husband.

The film veers quickly from jaunty comedy of flirtation to heart-rending drama as Kitty’s selfish choices have a ripple effect through the years. (On hand to assist the heart-rending: toddler cutie Mary Louise Miller, who played the baby in Mary Pickford’s Sparrows, as Kitty’s daughter.) Because of its short length and Bow’s ineffable screen appeal, the film never crumbles beneath its piled-on emotions, and in the von Sternberg-shot ending, actually becomes quite moving.

Sourced from Paramount’s 4K scan of a Library of Congress restoration, the 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer on Flicker Alley’s disc is very strong, especially considering the problematic history of the source elements, which were badly preserved. Image clarity and high levels of fine detail are pronounced immediately, with damage largely relegated to fine scratches that don’t overwhelm the image. There are some softer moments later in the film, and an insert shot of a letter being written displays extreme nitrate decomposition — a clue to how badly the film was preserved — but all in all, the film looks great. A newly recorded score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is presented in LPCM 2.0 stereo, and sounds fantastic.

The major extra in Flicker Alley’s package is the 1999 TCM documentary on Bow’s tumultuous personal and professional life, which provides an excellent overview in an hour. (Despite the legion of online complaints, Courtney Love’s narration is fine.) The doc is presented in standard def. Also included is a booklet with an excerpt from David Stenn’s biography (which is not kind to Children of Divorce) and notes on the restoration, score and the TCM doc. A DVD copy is also included in this combo pack.

Flicker Alley / 1927 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 71 min / $39.95

PrivatePrivate Property (1960)
Cinelicious Pics

Suburban dread oozes out of the pores of Private Property, a once lost film from director Leslie Stevens where nastiness bubbles just below the surface for nearly the entirety of this slow-burn anti-thriller. Rediscovered and restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the film is probably most notable as the first starring role for Warren Oates, whose timid impotence here is a far cry from the swaggering or subdued antiheroes he played in some of the ’70s most singular American films.

Corey Allen stars as Duke, a maniacal drifter on the road with Oates’ Boots where they’re on the hunt for a place to stay in Los Angeles and some female companionship for Boots, which Duke promises to deliver. Within minutes, they’ve hijacked a ride to stalk the alluring Ann Carlyle (Kate Manx, Stevens’ wife in her first of only two film roles) to her home in the Hollywood Hills, shared with her often absent executive husband.

After finding a vacant house to squat in next door, Duke poses as a handyman and squirms his way into Ann’s life, while Boots is often left over there, only able to watch from a top-floor window as Duke and Ann flirt poolside. Both Boots and Duke are incessant voyeurs, but only one of them is ever able to do anything about it.

The veneer of charm on Allen’s sneering performance is very thin indeed, but it’s enough to appeal to Ann; Manx’s performance has a palpable longing — both sexual and emotional — that’s accompanied by a kind of paralysis. Wealth, status and societal convention have pinned her inside her home, and a reckless decision or two might be her only chance at escape.

Private Property isn’t really a major rediscovery, especially given the expected path it eventually treads, but it’s an enjoyably acrid take on the horrors of domestic living — and worse.

Cinelicious’ 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer, sourced from UCLA’s 4K restoration, is gorgeous, presenting a detailed, sharp image full of beautiful, well-resolved grain. The noirish film has plenty of dark scenes, but shadow detail remains strong. Damage is minimal. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack is clean and free of noticeable defects.

Extras include a newly filmed interview with set photographer Alexander Singer, who had a long career directing television and a few films after getting his start on the set of this and several early Stanley Kubrick films. His personal remembrance is a nice addition to the disc. Film notes from historian Don Malcolm are presented in an included insert, as is a DVD copy in this combo pack.

Cinelicious Pics / 1960 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 79 min / $34.99

Man FacingMan Facing Southeast (Hombre mirando al sudeste, 1986)
Kino Lorber

A low-key Argentinian science fiction film with a modest cult following to match, Eliseo Subiela’s Man Facing Southeast probably isn’t a Blu-ray upgrade that’s been sitting on many wish lists, but Kino’s release is welcome, particularly since the film never even received a Region 1 DVD.

With a plot that will be familiar to anyone who read or watched K-PAX (2001) — similarities were noted at the time of the later film’s release, but no connection was established — Man Facing Southeast tells the story of two men whose lives become intertwined. One is a respected psychiatrist, Dr. Julio Denis (Lorenzo Quinteros), whose professional acumen and personal failings come right out of some hoary screenwriters’ manual. The other is Rantés (Hugo Soto), a mysterious man who appears in Denis’ mental hospital one day, claiming to be a messenger sent from another planet to save humanity from its own shortcomings.

Soto’s performance is generally guided by a kind of anodyne solemnity, and the movie tends to follow suit, less interested in exploiting any drama out of Rantés’ claims — which Denis reflexively rejects — than weaving philosophical conversations between the two and quietly gawking at his strange behavior, like standing outside every evening to send and receive transmissions from his home planet.

Despite his proclamations, Rantés doesn’t do much for the good of humanity in the film, and his overt acts make for some of the film’s most risible scenes, including one where he helps feed a hungry family in a diner by moving other people’s food psychokinetically to their spot at the counter. The cinematic dullness of fishing-wire gags aside, how does allowing people to get a few bites off a stolen plate before having to flee the restaurant while he creates another distraction help them at all?

The enigmas around Rantés abound, including his relationship with frequent visitor Beatriz (Inés Vernengo) — though a backwards subtitle here gives it away — but they’re moderately compelling at best. I suppose there’s an audience for a less visually and narratively experimental The Man Who Fell to Earth, but I’m not in it.

Kino’s 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is certainly going to be an improvement over old VHS copies, but it has some issues of its own. Things begin promisingly, despite some pronounced telecine wobble, with a naturalistic, fairly detailed transfer. There are marks here and there, but nothing overwhelming, and for much of the film, color reproduction is solid. That changes at chapter 8, where suddenly, there are massive color density fluctuations that turn the image into a blobby mess. This lasts for around 10 minutes. Whether this is an elements issue or an encoding one, it’s bad.

The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo track is also problematic, featuring intermittent hiss and high-pitched background tone. The overworked saxophone-based score sounds OK, and dialogue is fine.

Kino assembles a nice slate of extras for this disc including three 20-minute-plus interviews with Subiela, Soto and DP Ricardo De Angelis. The Soto interview appears to be archival, but the other two look newly produced. A booklet features a brief director’s statement and an essay by historian Nancy J. Membrez.

Kino Lorber / 1986 / Color / 1.85:1 / 108 min / $34.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Bat Whispers” (1930)

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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.)

BatWhispers

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.