Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Bat (1926)

Directed by Roland West
Starring: Jewel Carmen
               Jack Pickford
               Emily Fitzroy
               Tullio Carminali
Run time: 88 mins
Studio: United Artists
Black & White

Whoops. My plan to review the horror films of the 1920s in chronological order has come unstuck. Somehow I managed to forget about The Bat, even while I was writing my review of West's The Monster (1925). It was only while searching for the next film to review (another Lon Chaney) that I discovered the The Bat wedged between Roger Corman's The Terror and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (I really need to organise my DVDs better!). As I fed the disc into the player I did worry that maybe I'd forgotten about The Bat because I didn't like it or because it wasn't very good; but happily I can report that although my personal preference is for The Monster, The Bat is in fact a better film and further proof that West deserves to be better remembered than he is.

The Bat is yet another old dark house thriller based on yet another successful Broadway stage play (although, in fact, it began life as a novel) and, like The Monster, its storyline has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese; but West's frenetic direction doesn't allow us much time to ponder them - as with The Monster, the action in The Bat moves at a furious pace. Characters don't just creep around the old dark houses in West's films - they race through them, run up and down the stairs, leap over furniture, and swing through windows. The Bat is essentially a farce, characterized as it is by an elaborate and improbable plot, multiple chase scenes, and a generous helping of verbal and physical humour.

The Bat of the title is a master criminal (and, incidentally, an acknowledged inspiration for Bob Kane's Batman) who has been running rings around the police for some time. Something of a celebrity, whose escapades are reported regularly in the papers, the Bat is famous for the sinister costume he wears to mask his real identity. Though he is known primarily as a thief, the Bat has a darker side to his nature, as revealed in the opening scene in which he breaks into the penthouse of a jewel collector named Gideon Bell (George Beranger) and murders him for the sake of stealing just one of the "fabulous Favre emeralds" (in fairness to the Bat, however, it should be noted that he does give Bell advance warning of his intention to rob him, so maybe Bell should have heeded the warning and cleared out of the apartment instead of waiting with a gun to catch the thief in the act). Escaping through the window and across the rooftops, the Bat leaves behind a bat-shaped calling card informing the police that he is going to take a short break in the countryside.

This trip to the countryside turns out to be a trip to Oakdale County, where it transpires that the Bat intends to rob the county bank. Unfortunately, however, someone has beaten him to it. As the Bat watches through the skylight, a mysterious Man in a Black Mask (Charles Hertzinger) opens the safe and removes a large sum of money. Scurrying away from the bank with the cash in a bag, the Man in the Black Mask gets into a car and speeds off into the night. Disconcerted and annoyed, the Bat decides to follow in his own prototype batmobile. The Man in the Black Mask leads him to a lonely, moonlit mansion built and designed, we are told, by a certain Courtleigh Fleming, recently deceased president of the Oakdale Bank. The Bat watches from the trees as the Man in the Black Mask breaks into the house through a basement window.

The Fleming Mansion is currently occupied by Mrs Cornelia Van Gorder of New York (Elizabeth Fitzroy) who has leased the place with her niece, Dale Allen (Jewel Carmen), hoping to find the peace and quiet she needs to concentrate on her knitting. But strange things have been happening around the house: lights keep flickering on and off, and mysterious noises have caused her superstitious maid, Lizzie Allen (Louise Ferzenda, in the film's most comedic role), to become more than usually jittery. Lizzie, who has been setting bear traps around the grounds (or, rather, hurling them out of the windows) on the off-chance that the Bat might turn up to terrorise them, is convinced that the 'Heebies Jeebies' are at work in the house; but Cornelia is convinced that there are logical explanations for what has been happening. Nevertheless, she agrees to accompany Lizzie down to the basement to investigate the source of the latest unexplained sounds. By this time, the Man in the Black Mask has disappeared up the laundry chute via a conveniently placed ladder, so the two women find the basement empty; but when the Bat's long-eared silhouette appears at the window, Lizzie's screams cause Cornelia to accidentally fire the gun.

The next day, the robbery makes the papers. At his gentleman's club in New York, Richard Fleming (Arthur Houseman) reads that the police are searching for one Brooks Bailey (Jack Pickford), a cashier at the Oakdale Bank, who has gone missing along with $200,000. Richard is the late Courtleigh Fleming's spendthrift nephew, who has leased the Fleming house in the hope of paying off his gambling debts, some of which appear to be owed to the family physician, Dr Wells (Robert McKim), who is also at the club and informs Richard that there are reasons why the Fleming house should not be occupied at this time. He warns Richard that he may have no choice but to scare the women out.

Meanwhile, back at the house, Dale is trying to persuade her aunt to employ her new boyfriend as their gardener. Cornelia questions the young man to determine if he really is what he says he is and, with a little help from Dale, he succeeds in securing the job - except that Cornelia has seen right through him and knows full well that he isn't a gardener. (How many gardeners do you know with manicured fingernails?) She appears to have hired him simply to keep her niece happy. Dale's boyfriend is in fact Brooks Bailey, the Oakdale Bank cashier, who has come to the Fleming Mansion not only to be with Dale and hide from the police, but also to search for the stolen money, which he believes has been brought to the house. Dale suspects that the cash might be hidden in a secret room that she heard about when the house was being built, and it's here that I find myself scratching my head a bit. What reason would Brooks have to think that the money has been brought to the Fleming house? And isn't it too much of a coincidence that he just happens to be going out a girl who lives there? In addition to this, there's no suggestion that Dale or her aunt have ever had any connection to the Fleming family prior to their renting the house, so how could a much younger Dale have overheard the conversation between Courtleigh Fleming and his architect about the hidden room? It's never explained. (On the other hand, it's entirely possible that I've completely misunderstood what’s going on here. If so, please feel free to enlighten me.)

Meanwhile, Billy (Kamiyama Sojin), the sinister Oriental butler who was thrown in with the lease, announces the arrival of Dr Wells, who happens to turn up just seconds after a message wrapped around a rock and warning Cornelia to get out of the house has been hurled through the dining room window. Hot on the doctor's heels is a detective by the name of Moletti, who has been summoned by Cornelia as a result of the suspected break-in the night before, and who also just happens to be the detective charged with hunting down the Bat. Cornelia wants to know if there is any connection between the goings-on at the house and the Oakdale Bank robbery. Detective Moletti doesn't think so - that is until he accidentally discovers that Brooks Bailey is in the house. A lengthy chase sequence then ensues that reveals West's considerable aptitude for farce, as Moletti pursues Brooks through the house, up and down the building's many staircases and in and out of rooms, including the bathroom where Lizzie is trying to shower (and where Brooks makes clever use of the shower curtain to evade his pursuer) and the bedroom where Cornelia, seemingly oblivious to the intrusion, is pressing on with her mission to knit until Doomsday.

A few words should be said here about the film's sets. The exterior model shot of the Fleming Mansion, complete with haunted tower and ever-circling bat, is charmingly spooky and well-executed (indeed, all the film's model shots, including a New York cityscape, the Oakdale Bank, and the Fleming house garage, which later burns down, are noteworthy for their time) but it's the interiors that really impress. Although the Fleming Mansion is not strictly speaking an old dark house, having been built in the fairly recent past by Courtleigh Fleming, its vast rooms are still steeped in the requisite Gothic gloom; but it's the Art Deco trimmings and the illogical layout of the place that give it its unique appeal. There are hints of Expressionism here and there (although the only obviously Expressionistic set in the film is Gideon Bell's penthouse) but it seems to me that West wasn't so much trying to reflect disturbed states of mind in his architecture as he was trying to ensure that his large cast had enough space to run around!

While the chase is going on, Dale sneaks down to greet Richard Fleming at the front door, having phoned him earlier to tell him her suspicions about the money being in the house. (Again, I'm not sure why she would phone him. How does she know him?) Richard confirms that the hidden room does exist and explains that its location can be found on the mansion’s blueprints, which he says are stored in an old chest of drawers in the dining room. But he is lying – as Dale goes to retrieve the prints, Richard removes them instead from a secret compartment in a bookcase. Dale catches him out and it turns out that, unlike her, Richard has no intention of returning the money to the bank. Dale pulls a gun on him and is threatening to turn him over to Detective Moletti, when a door opens at the top of the stairs on which Richard is standing and an unseen assailant shoots him dead.

The shot of course brings everyone running and when it is revealed that a single shot has been fired from the gun that Dale is carrying, she is branded number one suspect in Richard’s murder (of course, the gun is missing a bullet because Aunt Cornelia accidentally fired it the night before, but Moletti doesn't believe her).  Examining Richard's body, Moletti discovers the blueprints and notices that a part of them has been torn off. He somehow knows about the hidden room and suspects Dale of having killed Fleming in order to learn of its whereabouts.

At this point there is another arrival at the house, Detective ‘Bloodhound’ Anderson (Eddie Gribbon) of Oakdale Detective Agency, who has apparently been summoned by Cornelia in response to the strange goings-on. (But hang on – didn’t Cornelia say that about Moletti, too?). No sooner has Anderson arrived than the internal telephone rings. Cornelia answers it but can only hear horrible groans at the other end – the sounds of someone in terrible distress in the garage. Suddenly the lights flicker and fail, and through the window there shines a beam of light that begins to creep eerily across the wall. In the centre of the beam is the silhouette of a bat…

The bat signal turns out to be the projected silhouette of a moth stuck on the headlamp of Dr Wells’ car. The doctor (who earlier left but has now returned) examines Richard’s body and is informed by Dale that she has indeed taken the scrap of blueprint and has hidden it on a tea tray in the dining room. While they are talking, a dishevelled figure creeps in unseen through the French window …then exits again shortly after.

Investigating noises in another room, ‘Bloodhound’ Anderson discovers Brooks Bailey and exposes him to everyone as the missing Oakdale Bank cashier. He attempts to arrest him, until Cornelia  vouches for him and Dale explains that she and Brooks are engaged to be married and that all Brooks wants to do is clear his name.
Meanwhile, Dr Wells has found the blueprint fragment in the dining-room and is interrupted by Moletti, who demands that Wells hand the fragment over. Once in his possession, Moletti disappears in search of the secret room, knocking on walls as he goes. The sounds alert the others, who interpret the noises as yet further evidence of something sinister going on in the house. With the exception of Dr Wells, they follow the sounds into what Lizzie calls ‘the haunted ballroom’, a dark and cavernous space where candles will not stay lit, as Anderson discovers when he tries to light two candelabras. Elsewhere, Detective Moletti is still knocking on walls until he is attacked by Dr Wells, who knocks him unconscious (actually, given the number of times the doctor beats Moletti over the head it's a miracle that the detective survives!) ties him up and bundles him into a cupboard.

Having returned to the dining-room the main group are alarmed by rapping sounds on the French window. Opening the window, they are startled when the battered and dishevelled stranger staggers back in. He is semi-conscious, cannot speak, and has no I.D on him. While the group are debating what to do, Brooks rushes in to inform them that he has just encountered the Man in the Black Mask, at which point the door slams shut and they are locked in. They try to leave the house via the veranda, but the Bat is waiting for them with a gun. Clinging to the ivy he shoots at them when they attempt to leave. Satisfied that they will not try to escape through the French windows, the Bat climbs up onto the roof and disappears into the tower where he locates the secret room behind a fireplace. In the corner of the room is a safe.

The main group downstairs use a chair as a battering ram to escape from the dining-room, whereupon they send Brooks outside to see what is going on (which is nice of them, considering that he could get his head blown off!). Brooks catches sight of the Man in the Black Mask creeping along the roof towards the tower and is shocked to realise that the stranger, whose mask has slipped to reveal his face, is none other than Courtleigh Fleming, the supposedly dead president of Oakdale Bank. When he tells the others they leave him with the semi-conscious stranger and all head up to the tower.

While the others clamber out of the tower and onto the roof (I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten why –  I’ll admit that by now I was starting to have difficulty following exactly what was going on) Dale spies a light around the edges of the  fireplace and, exploring, gains entry to the secret room. Unfortunately, the fireplace closes behind her, locking her in with the Bat, who demands that she tell him the combination to the safe (which, of course, she doesn’t know). However, there appears to be another entrance into the secret room – while the Bat is menacing poor Dale, Courtleigh Fleming sneaks in through another door, opens the safe, and tries to make off with the cash, but the Bat spots him and a wrestling match ensues, during which the bat’s gun goes off, killing Fleming. The Bat drags Fleming’s corpse out through the second door, while Dale manages to get the fireplace open and escape.

There is a good deal more running around before everyone ends up back in the attic, where they discover Fleming’s corpse and the bag of money, which the Bat apparently forgot to take with him when disposing of Fleming’s body. It transpires that Fleming was in league with Dr Wells (who forged Fleming’s death certificate) and that they had planned to rob the bank, split the money, and put the blame on Brooks.

The Bat, meanwhile, has set fire to the garage in the hope of drawing everyone out of the house and regaining the money, but it doesn’t work and he is apprehended on his return to the tower. Fortunately, however, he has booby trapped the room and is able to escape again when the lights go out. Unfortunately, he runs straight into one of the bear traps that Lizzie has set to capture him. His identity is revealed at last (as is the identity of the mysterious dishevelled man) and, thankfully, it isn’t a cheat. There are still unanswered questions, of course, but on the whole the story threads do come together satisfactorily at the end. 

The Bat isn't as good as Paul Leni's Cat and the Canary, but it's a fine and influential 'old dark house thriller' nonetheless. Like The Monster, it's probably fair to say that The Bat is more fun than frightening to watch; but that's not to say that it doesn’t have its scary moments: the scene where the Bat advances on Dale in the secret room is particularly effective, especially as it's the first time we get to see the Bat's crude but genuinely creepy mask in close-up.

While the film does at times come close to sinking under the weight of its plot, West is able to keep a much tighter reign on his material than he does in The Monster, managing, on whole, to stick to the point rather than get sidetracked with things that bear little relation to the main story. The balance between the horror and the comedy is also more finely tuned than in The Monster, no doubt because the comedic characters (Lizzie and, in particular, the wonderfully dry and deadpan Cornelia) are much more credible than any of the characters that appear in the earlier film. And then of course there are the special effects and the acrobatics, which are always a treat and something of a West trademark.

And yet, as I said at the beginning, I can't help but prefer The Monster. I just find it more imaginatively appealing, for all that it is the more naive of the two films. 

(West remade The Bat in 1930 as The Bat Whispers, but unfortunately I don't own a copy and have never seen it. I'm hoping to rectify that soon, however, as everything I've read about it suggests that it was his masterpiece. You can watch clips of it here:


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