Saturday, January 9, 2016

Criminals in the House: "The Bat" (1926)



During the 1920s, everyone was going gaga for spooky old houses. Specifically, people on Broadway were hungrily consuming a whole slew of "old dark house" productions. These plays tended to combine mystery (of the locked room variety), humor, and, most importantly, horror. A generic old dark house play goes something like this: a group of strangers, many of whom are distant relatives, gather in a dilapidated old mansion in New York's Westchester County. They are there to hear the reading of a will. The will's author is a rich, old, and dead eccentric who put into his final testament a pair of funky stipulations. The lucky recipient of the will's fortune then must spend the night in the haunted mansion, which is also swimming in intrigue. As the audience learns more about the quirks of the relatives, they also hear word that some sort of crazy murderer or criminal may be lurking just outside. 

Although this description is closer to John Willard's The Cat and the Canary, The Bat contains many of these same elements. In sum, The Bat, which was co-written by Mary Roberts Rinehart, the doyen of American mystery fiction, and Avery Hopwood, the Jazz Age's greatest composer of popular plays, indeed deals with a spooky mansion in upstate New York. This time instead of a will, several people converge on an isolated mansion because of stolen loot. The money, which has been recently stolen from a local bank, draws in not only the thief himself, but also The Bat--a mysterious and masked super-criminal who has no problem with killing. 



The Bat, a pulp fiction villain who would later influence Batman creator Bob Kane, is the extra excitement in the intricately-plotted play, which is more or less a permutation on Rinehart's exceedingly popular novel The Circular Staircase. Because of this, The Bat was one of the first plays to translate the Golden Age style of mystery writing to the stage. By all accounts, it was a successful effort. 

A few years later, Hollywood came calling. In 1926, The Bat was brought to the big screen by United Artists. Directed by Roland West, one of the unsung heroes of early noir filmmaking, The Bat is a moody melodrama that turns The Bat character into a true grotesquerie. 



Hidden behind a demonic mask with emphasized bat ears and long, tiger-like fangs, The Bat spends a lot of time away from the camera while the other inhabitants of the mansion search for a set of blueprints that lead to a well-stocked safe. Besides The Bat, the house also includes Van Gorder (played by Emily Fitzroy), her jumpy Irish maid Lizzie Allen (played by Louisa Fazenda), the flapper Dale Ogden (played by Jewel Carmen), her boyfriend Brooks Bailey (played by Jack Pickford), the creepy Japanese butler Billy (played by Sojin Kamiyama), the private dick Anderson (played by Eddie Gribbon), and the famous police investigator Detective Moletti (played by Tulio Carminati). 

This is not all, either. Outside, while The Bat slinks around, a strange figure shadows the house from the ground and the roof. Unbeknownst to the characters in the film, this figure is the man responsible for the heist at the Oakdale Bank--a heist that netted the unknown criminal $200,000. In a weird bit of symmetry, the owner of the Oakdale Bank, the recently deceased Courtleigh Fleming, is also the man who built the gothic mansion that Van Gorder rents for the summer. Without spoiling anything,Courtleigh Fleming plays more than just a minor role in the film. While the police are sure that The Bat stole the precious Favre Emeralds during a daring robbery-murder in the city, they are similarly convinced that Bailey, a cashier at the bank, is the man behind the $200,000 heist. As such, Bailey has to pretend to be a gardner in order to both hideout in the Fleming mansion and search for the treasure that the house reportedly holds. 



As the plot thickens, the indebted playboy Arthur Fleming (played by Arthur Housman) also shows up and soon falls into a feud with Moletti. Like the others, Fleming is looking for his relative's fortune and is not about to let a police officer stop him. Then again, Moletti may not be the upstanding bloodhound that everyone believes him to be. I'll just leave that one there for you. After all, the film's producers made me swear not to reveal the conclusion. I'm sure you understand. 

The Bat is clearly an important film. Not only did West's gloomy, almost Expressionist production inspire several remakes, the best of which include 1930's The Bat Whispers and a 1959 version that stars Vincent Price, but it also helped to further popularize the old dark house genre. A cinematic adaptation of The Cat and the Canary followed thanks to The Bat, while other likeminded films appeared throughout the 1920s and 1930s. That said, The Bat at times feels more like a filmed stage production than an actual film. Although the scenery is superb, most of it is filmed from a wide angle, thus giving the silver screen audience the same view as a Broadway crowd. When West does admit he's making a film, he crafts incredibly artistic shots that remind one of Fritz Lang's best German films. 



A very important piece for genre fans, The Bat might be hard to swallow for dabblers. I for one find the film better than average, even given its unnecessary attachment to the standards of the Great White Way. Without question, The Bat is one of West's best, and since West is a master, The Bat is therefore a masterwork. 



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