Sunday, November 4, 2012



Many "old dark house" films fit into my "phantasmal figurations" category in that they include someone pretending to be a ghost, as in THE SMILING GHOST, or a mad killer, as in THE CAT AND THE CANARY.

Neither Roland West's original adaptation of the Mary Roberts Rinehart play nor his four-years-later remake, however, have anyone pretending to be a spook.  Admittedly, the old mansion in which the majority of the film takes place is a veritable palace of forbidding shadows, and a comedy-relief maid continually fears the presence of phantoms.  But in both BAT-films, the menace is a murderous (but not technically mad) thief who chooses to dress up like the titular chiropteran.  This does qualify the film for the "outre outfits" trope, however.

Short summation for both films: "The Bat" is a master criminal who has continually flummoxed the local cops by warning them of his intended targets and still managing to rip them off.  He leaves the cops a mocking note about taking a rest "in the country," which means that he's decided to pursue a new target in the old mansion rented by dowager Cornelia Van Gordon.  All of the occupants of the mansion-- the dowager, her  niece, the niece's prospective boyfriend, and various other guests-- are menaced by the Bat, though one of them may actually be the masked supercriminal.

In a nutshell, THE BAT is far superior to the stagey WHISPERS, for all that the later movie has more actors that the average "classic film" buff will recognize (Chester Morris and Una Merkel, for two).  The creaky mystery-plot doesn't give either set of actors much to do beyond the most basic emoting, but THE BAT shows director West taking full advantage of excellent cinematography (partly supplied by the famed Gregg Toland) and of masterful sets by William Cameron Menzies.  The first fifteen minutes, showing how the athletic super-thief gains access to the skyscraper apartment of a wealthy jewel-owner, is one of the most exemplary scenes in silent cinema.  The same scene in WHISPERS-- which no longer included the participation of either Toland or Menzies-- falls flat.  Many scenes in WHISPERS re-use set-pieces from the earlier film, but it seems as though the exigencies of dealing with sound sapped away West's ability to suggest the weird sublimity seen in THE BAT.

Neither film rates high on the mythicity scale, however, even though THE BAT is masterful in putting across the kinetic emotional effects.  I debated as to whether or not these films qualified for the "adventure" mythos since they do concern a masked criminal-- the obverse of the more popular masked hero.  However, the emphasis here is not on the invigorating feel of an adventure-story, but on the feelings of fear perceived by the mansion-guests terrorized by the Bat.  Thus both BAT-films skew toward the mythos of drama.

The shadowy *frissons*  offered by the original BAT bear a strong resemblance to the moody *noir* visuals of the BATMAN comic book in its first year.  However, creator Bob Kane claimed that he did not see the 1926 film, only the 1930 WHISPERS.  I think it's unlikely that the 1930 film had a strong influence on the visual atmosphere of the comic book, though it's possible that some of Kane's artistic collaborators-- of which he had many-- might have seen the first BAT. It's equally likely that Kane and his many collaborators were simply influenced by many other Gothic-flavored entertainments of the period-- some of which had other bat-costumed heroes and villains.

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