Posted by Susan Doll on June 21, 2010
The Bat Whispers, Roland West’s sound version of his silent classic The Bat, is scheduled to air this Wednesday, June 23, on TCM. Despite the 2:30am airtime, those interested in visually stylish films, the influence of German Expressionism on Hollywood, or the connection between comic books and the movies will want to catch this old-school thriller.
I became a fan of Roland West’s films when I watched The Bat last year at the Silent Film Society’s annual Summer Film Festival in Chicago. The Bat is an old dark house tale about a murderous cat burglar who dresses in a bat costume. The old dark house storyline was enormously popular during the Jazz Age. The script for The Bat was adapted from a play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood, which opened on Broadway in August 1920 and ran for 867 performances. The play was a reworking of Rinehart’s popular novel The Circular Staircase from 1907 combined with a bit of her short story “The Borrowed House.” What made The Bat stand out among the dozens of other old dark house tales was the Expressionist mise-en-scene adopted by West and his team. The thriller’s stark, high-contrast lighting, with little or no gray scale, and stunning set design elevated the material above the formulaic storyline, much like Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary. Arthur Edeson, one of Hollywood’s most influential cinematographers and a cofounder of the American Society of Cinematographers, worked out the lighting schemes and camera angles with West for The Bat, while William Cameron Menzies, who later served as art director on Gone With the Wind, did the set design.
Despite its 1926 release date—84 years ago—The Bat does have a connection to contemporary films, albeit an indirect one. Bob Kane, the originator of Batman, likely saw The Bat and/or The Bat Whispers, or perhaps a version of Rinehart and Hopwood’s play. Debate exists over which version of the material actually inspired Kane, but I lean toward the silent version because there is more bat imagery, including the silhouette of the Bat against a spotlight that looks very much the Batman signal. In addition, the Bat’s costume includes pointed ears, reminiscent of the pointed cowl that is an essential ingredient to Batman’s look. However, both The Bat and The Bat Whispers use a stark, graphic Expressionist style later associated with comic books. Those contemporary graphic novelists and filmmakers influenced by Bob Kane and comic book art owe a nod to West’s thrillers, which in turn were influenced by German Expressionist films and the work of French filmmaker Louis Feuillade and his 10-part serial called Les Vampires about a group of master criminals who call themselves the Vampires. (For more on the origins and influence of The Bat, click here for my earlier post.)
The Bat Whispers closely follows the plot of The Bat until the ending, which was altered considerably from the silent version. After an opening sequence in which the Bat steals a famous necklace from a local millionaire, which proves his prowess as a cat burglar, the masked criminal watches as a local bank is robbed by a mysterious character. The thief and his loot are followed by the Bat to the mansion of Mrs. Cornelia Van Gorder, a rich matron who lives with a rogue’s gallery of eccentric characters, including her greedy niece, a spinster maid prone to hysteria, a butler, and a caretaker. The thief hides the money in the mansion, while the Bat literally shadows him around the long, dark corridors and secret passageways. As the cliché goes, the plot thickens, because numerous detectives, cops, and even the doctor from the nearby sanitarium show up to skulk around the house for reasons that serve only to complicate the storyline. The surprise ending reveals the identity of the Bat, a conclusion that is completely different from the silent version. After the final fade-out, the screen dissolves to a pair of theatrical curtains closing—as though we had just finished watching the film at a grand movie palace during the Golden Age. Star Chester Morris, who plays Detective Anderson, steps out from behind the curtains to address the movie audience and plead with them not to divulge the surprise ending to those who haven’t seen The Bat Whispers. In exchange for the audience’s silence, a bemused Morris promises that the Bat will not rob their homes. It’s a touch sure to charm movie buffs and make us nostalgic for the innocence of a Hollywood from another era.
Despite the changed conclusion, the plot of The Bat Whispers is no more engaging than it was in The Bat. The plot is not what makes either film interesting or entertaining. West reshot the story because he wanted to take advantage of two new technologies that he was excited about—sync sound and Magnifilm, which was an experimental 65mm widescreen process that was two decades ahead of CinemaScope. Very few films were produced in this non-anamorphic widescreen process, which was also called Grandeur. [In addition to The Bat Whispers, The Big Trail (1930), which featured John Wayne in his first major role, was shot in Magnifilm.] The process was short lived because few theater owners were willing to invest in the equipment necessary to project 65mm. Theater owners had just been strong-armed into wiring their theaters and changing their projection equipment to accommodate sync sound while they were still struggling with the impact of the Depression. It’s understandable that they refused to make additional expensive changes in order to exhibit Magnifilm. The Production Code Administration, which administered the Hays Code among other duties, sided with the theaters and actually issued a ruling in 1930 that forbade the studios from investing in new technologies for at least two years to give exhibiters a break.
Because so few theaters could accommodate the 65mm print, West and his crew simultaneously shot a 35mm version in standard Academy format. I am not sure which version TCM is showing, but if you rent the film, both are available on the DVD release. The 65mm format resulted in West’s increased use of long and medium-long shots, particularly for dialogue scenes inside the mansion. There were very few, if any, close-ups of characters speaking in the 65mm version, and West did not use shot/reverse shots in the dialogue scenes to facilitate conversation. More details of the set design of the mansion are viewable in these longer shots, but these shots are also reminiscent of a play so that the viewer is physically and psychologically distanced from the characters. The 35mm uses more close-ups, which allow the viewer more intimacy with the characters but sacrifice the details of the set design in the process.
The Bat Whispers was released in November 1930, three years after the success of The Jazz Singer made silent film passé. While West may have been excited about the possibilities of sound, the thriller suffers from some of the problems associated with the sync sound equipment. The non-directional, stationary microphones of the era were weak and tended to pick up unwanted sounds. The mikes were placed in objects on the set, and actors were blocked around the object so their dialogue could be recorded clearly. Actors placed farthest from the mike sounded weaker, making the dialogue among a group of characters uneven. In a scene in which Mrs. Van Gorder interviews the man who wants to be her new gardener, four characters linger around a huge flower arrangement directly behind the matron’s head. Obviously, this was where the microphone was placed. In another scene, Detective Anderson interviews a couple of characters while he stands near a table where his hat rests prominently in the foreground. My guess is that the microphone was under the hat.
Because of the difficulties in capturing sync sound dialogue, the scenes involving interrogations, explanations, and conversations consist of dully composed, bland-looking shots, which sometimes slow down the pace of the film. They are rendered in a more naturalistic style than the scenes of action that were shot silently or with non-sync sound effects. The camera angles are straightforward, the lighting in a higher key, and the actors are blocked together in the center or to one side. The scenes are too long and talky.
However, West tries hard to take advantage of the eerie ambience that sound can add to a mystery thriller. Thunder rolls and claps throughout the film to add atmosphere to the non-sync sound scenes in which the characters skulk around the long dark hallways and secret rooms in pursuit of the stolen money. In addition, doors squeak and walls thump. In the narrative, the function of Lizzie the maid is for comic relief, but I found the exaggerated character more effective in the silent version. There is something about the naturalism of sync sound that renders larger-than-life, buffoonish characters more difficult to pull off. However, Lizzy does have the occasional exchange of funny dialogue—which draws viewers closer to her, at least for those scenes. At one point, she informs Mrs. Van Gorder that she has a right to speak her mind, to which Mrs. VG replies, “You haven’t got a mind.” Without missing a beat, Lizzie retorts, “If I had one, you wouldn’t let me use it.”
And, the creepiest scene in the film, which forms the basis of the title, is effective precisely because of sync-sound dialogue. When viewers finally see the Bat up close, he speaks in a raspy whisper that is downright unearthly. Mrs. VG’s niece, Dale, is trapped in the secret room with the villain who emerges out of the shadows as a dark, misshapen form. He lumbers toward her in a staggering stride, seeming to grow larger and quicker as he moves closer toward her. She runs in circles around the room to get away, but the Bat closes in behind her, rasping in a monotone, “I’m gonna getcha, I’m gonna getcha.” For viewers in 1930, who were still unaccustomed to diegetic sound, the scene must have been doubly effective.
For all of West’s excitement about the “advanced” technology of sync sound and widescreen, I am still more impressed with his use of visual techniques such as lighting, camera, angles, and tracking shots. Because of the cumbersome nature of sound equipment, these visual techniques are exploited to their best advantage in the scenes shot MOS (without sound) or with non-sync sound effects. These scenes echo the abstract visual quality of the original The Bat and are much richer than the naturalistic-looking dialogue scenes. The extreme high-contrast lighting heightens the mystery and increases the tension in the action scenes, particularly when the Bat is silhouetted as a shadow against the window. For most of the film, the Bat appears as a mere silhouette, taking advantage of the idea that what you don’t see can be more frightening than what you do. In one striking shot, his silhouette reveals that he is suspended upside down like his totem animal from the top-floor window of a skyscraper. When the millionaire who holds the jewel that the Bat covets cautiously moves to the window to fix the flapping shade, we see the silhouette of the Bat take the necklace and dispatch the millionaire.
I won’t completely give away the movie’s secrets, but observant viewers will want to take note of the way Detective Anderson is lit from below in several close-ups, making the determined detective look frantic or crazed. As a matter of fact, the detective gets the most dynamic-looking close-ups in the film. In recent reviews and articles by Internet scribes and amateur historians, a few complained about the lighting, perplexed as to why Anderson, who is positioned as the hero, was lit with horror-film lighting. But, the lighting is more important than the dialogue in telegraphing what is to come—much like the lighting clues in Martin Scorsese’s recent Shutter Island reveal much about the protagonist.
Some sequences in The Bat Whispers use models of the city, its rooftops, and its streets in order to employ exhilarating tracking shots in which the camera races toward or away from its subject. The film opens with the title character in shadow on the city’s rooftops, and then the camera dives straight down the side of a building stopping at street level—suggesting the swooping of bat. Conversely, in the next scene, the camera flies up the side of the millionaire’s high rise and into the window that will soon be the location of the rich man’s demise. The transition from models to life-size sets is noticeable but smooth enough not to ruin the effect. West and his crew shot mostly at night to keep producer Joseph Schenck out of their hair, and he and his crew became extremely creative with their camera rigging. They suspended a camera by cables from the ceiling—a trick the Expressionists employed at UFA studios in Germany—so that it could swoop vertically at steep angles. They also rigged a camera high on a dolly so that it could crane down and then move quickly across a 300-foot track in a scene in which the camera catches up with a car and then chases after it down the road. I read several Internet reviews of The Bat Whispers, and most of the reviewers harped about the creaky plot. And, some actually claimed that the camerawork was neither innovative nor special. Frankly, they are wrong, because they didn’t consider the camerawork in its historical context, and they probably watched the film on the small screen, where the effect of these shots would be greatly diminished. While the Germans were experimenting with camera movement throughout the 1920s, and their work cannot be overlooked, the speed and angles of the camera as it moves in The Bat Whispers are indeed exciting and special—especially compared to other early sound films in Hollywood. According to the press book released as promotion for the film: “There were cameras on wheels, on elevator rigs, on catapults, cables, rails, trucks, and perambulators. One of the cameras rode a huge tricycle, electrically controlled…designed by Robert Planck.”
West directed one more film after The Bat Whispers called Corsair. I hope that TCM resurrects it some evening to show in a tribute to Roland West that would also include both versions of The Bat. West’s directorial career ended when he became emotionally entangled with the star of Corsair, Thelma Todd. The director was implicated in her mysterious death in 1936, and while it is unlikely that he was directly involved, he blamed himself for her tragic end and never made another film. [For more information on West, click here for my previous post on his tragic life and short career.] Given his strong visual style and innovative approach to filmmaking techniques, I am positive he would have had much more to offer.
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