The Bat (1959) The Bat (1959) ***

     1959 might seem like an awfully strange time to release yet a fourth film version of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, especially one written and directed by Crane Wilbur. Wilbur, after all, had been a major player during the 1920’s heyday of the spooky house mystery on stage, and on the face of it, the late 1950’s would appear to present a fundamentally hostile environment for his old stock in trade. Then again, the preceding two years had seen Hammer Film Productions rise to international notoriety by mounting amped-up remakes of Universal’s A-list horror titles from the early 30’s, and television was giving movies not too far removed in character from The Bat Whispers a degree of exposure which they had not enjoyed in many a year. Meanwhile, William Castle’s Macabre and The House on Haunted Hill had done big business for Allied Artists by offering up a template for a new generation of old, dark house flicks, showing that even the reprehensible phony ghost routine could be gotten away with if the movie leading up to it was sufficiently, well, spirited. And Crane Wilbur, though an old dog indeed by 1959, proved himself perfectly capable of learning a few new tricks. With his belated version of The Bat, he gave the hoary old tale a strikingly modern interpretation, discarding all but the skeleton of the stage play which had called the shots for Roland West’s two adaptations to create a film which Castle himself might have been proud to call his own (although Castle undoubtedly would have found a way to dump a vat full of rubber bats into the audience’s laps during a certain pivotal scene).

     Mystery author Cornelia Van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead, from Dear, Dead Delilah and Frankenstein: The True Story) and her maid, Lizzie Allen (The Mad Magician’s Lenita Lane), have recently moved into a giant, creaky mansion called the Oaks, on the outskirts of the small, upstate New York township of Zenith. The rest of the servants, who came with the house, are all threatening to leave town just now, partly because the neighborhood of the Oaks has recently become infested with rabies-carrying bats and partly because the house had once been the scene of several murders committed by a serial killer known only as the Bat. And of course, the less level-headed among them go so far as to draw a connection between the two worries on etymological grounds, postulating not only that the Bat has returned, but that he was the one who released all those rabid bats into the area. Lizzie explains all this to her boss while Warner the chauffeur (John Sutton, from Return of the Fly and the 1939 version of Tower of London) is taking them into town so that Cornelia can go to the bank. That errand, too, proves to be an occasion for exposition, for it is then that we meet bank manager Victor Bailey (Mike Steele, from Revenge of the Cheerleaders); his wife, Dale (Curse of the Faceless Man’s Elaine Edwards); and Lieutenant Anderson (Gavin Gordon, who can be seen as a young man in Bride of Frankenstein and The Mystery of the Wax Museum), the policeman who serves with Bailey on the bank’s board of trustees. Among the three of them, they establish that Cornelia and Dale are old friends, that the Oaks belongs to bank president John Fleming, and that there is indeed some concern within the police department about the Bat’s return. And after the ladies go home to the Oaks, it comes out that fully a million dollars’ worth of negotiable securities have gone unaccountably missing from a safe to which only Bailey and Fleming himself hold a key, putting the solvency of the entire institution in jeopardy.

     Meanwhile, Fleming (The House of Fear’s Harvey Stephens) is out on a hunting trip with his longtime friend and physician, Dr. Wells (Vincent Price). When Fleming asks Wells what he would do for half a million dollars, it becomes quite clear just what happened to the contents of that safe— Fleming has robbed his own bank, leaving Vic Bailey to take the fall. What he wants from Wells (and what he’s willing to pay half of his ill-gotten gains to get) is assistance in faking his death so that he can make the cleanest possible getaway. Wells should forge a coroner’s report saying that Fleming was killed and disfigured in a hunting accident, and then let himself be seen returning to Zenith with a closed casket; Fleming leaves it to Wells to decide whether that casket should contain a body pilfered from the nearest morgue or whether he feels like supplying a body of his own, if you know what I mean. And of course, now that Wells has been let in on Fleming’s secret, he really has no choice but to say yes— Fleming isn’t the only one who could fall prey to a hunting accident, after all. There’s one further possibility Fleming hasn’t figured on, however. Why couldn’t Wells kill Fleming for real, and then help himself to the whole million?

     Actually, helping himself to the cash into which Fleming converted those securities before leaving on his ill-fated trip is going to be a little more complicated than it sounds, because Fleming has hidden the money in a secret room somewhere in the Oaks. Consequently, Lieutenant Anderson won’t be the only one casting a suspicious eye on Wells (whose research specialty seems to have something to do with bat-borne diseases) when the Bat starts prowling around the mansion not long after the doctor’s homecoming. (Incidentally, now that we see him, it’s difficult to understand how the Bat got his name. His costume in this outing consists of a black hood held in place by a wide-brimmed hat, a pair of black latex gloves fitted with razor-sharp steel claws, and a charcoal gray suit of the sort in which well-to-do men apparently spent every waking moment of their lives during the 1950’s. Not only is it a most peculiar combination of elements, there’s nothing even remotely bat-like about it.) Then again, the way Anderson conducts his investigation when Cornelia calls him after a frightening run-in with the masked killer seems plenty suspicious in its own right, and Anderson, as a bank trustee, has more than a little personal stake in the missing money. For that matter, it could also be significant that Anderson recognizes Warner from the time he himself put the chauffeur behind bars for armed robbery. Then Dale Bailey gets involved, looking to clear her husband’s name. She, in turn, summons Mark Fleming (John Bryant), John Fleming’s son and successor as both bank president and owner of the Oaks, in the hope that he might be able to locate the mansion’s rumored secret chamber. The younger Fleming, however, is killed by the Bat almost immediately upon his arrival, as is Judy Hollander (ex-Little Rascal Darla Hood), the older Fleming’s former secretary and the star witness in the case for Vic Bailey’s defense. With so much mayhem going on right under her own roof, Cornelia finally takes matters into her own hands, and turns her mystery author’s mind to the dual problems of catching the Bat and uncovering the stolen money.

     Probably the smartest move Crane Wilbur made with his version of The Bat was to stretch out the story’s timeframe. If we disregard the prologues set in New York City, both 1926’s The Bat and 1930’s The Bat Whispers have the main action unfold over the course of a single night. This, presumably, was a holdover from the stage version, as it certainly wasn’t the way Mary Roberts Rhinehart handled things in the novel. It made for some very busy plotting, and demanded a number of contrivances in order to get all the necessary characters in the same place at the same time and to bring all of the competing schemes and counter-schemes to light. Not so here. Crane fully exercises the greater freedom a movie offers as compared to a stage play, allowing events to unfold at a more natural pace and in as many locations as necessary. His take on The Bat therefore feels much less like a play on film than the earlier versions, and is much less old-fashioned than one would expect of an updated silent film written and directed by a man who first made a name for himself in the early 20’s.

     Another big improvement is the much smaller and much less annoying role played by Lizzie Allen. In both previous movies, her mission was to provide heavy-gauge comic relief, and in The Bat Whispers, she came perilously close to derailing the entire production. This version gives the character a more understated reading, yet still preserves her high-strung, worry-prone, gossip-mongering essence. In addition to sparing the audience the bulk of the mugging and shrieking, the lighter touch makes it more credible that Cornelia Van Gorder could stand to be around Lizzie for as many years as she’s supposed to have.

     And while we’re on the subject of Cornelia, I want to emphasize how impressed I was with Agnes Moorehead’s performance. Most of the movies I’ve seen with Moorehead have used her very much the same way as the earlier interpretations of this one used the Lizzie Allen character. I’ve always thought of Moorehead primarily as a noisy, overwrought, heavy-handed actress, who did little to deserve the high regard in which she is generally held. The Bat showed me a side of her I’d not seen before, however. In this movie, she puts Cornelia across as competent, efficient, businesslike, and most of all, dignified, projecting a sense of reserved and collected strength which could not be farther removed from such later Moorehead roles as Bette Davis’s maid in Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte. She shows herself fully equal to the challenge of her character’s greatly expanded role as compared to the previous movie versions of The Bat, and together with Vincent Price (who is also in fine form here), she is one of the major load-bearing structures of the film. I never would have suspected she had it in her.



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