In the annals of “Whodunnit?” spooky old house movies, the awesome The Cat and the Canary (1927) ranks pretty high. But how about The Bat (1926)? It’s not quite a masterpiece of murder mystery films, but it does its job well, has some quasi-Expressionist cinematography and features one of my favorite comediennes (and she livens up the reels quite a bit). And yes, it features a mysterious “bat man” quite a few years before the Batman. Hmm, could this murder mystery be more influential than we realize…?
The Bat was based on a popular 1920 Broadway play, which in turn was based on the popular 1908 novel The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart. The American Agatha Christie of her day, Rinehart wrote popular mystery novels, plays and travelogues and was also a war correspondent during World War I. It’s thought that Rinehart’s 1930 book The Door was the origin of the old “the butler did it!” trope. The Circular Staircase itself started another popular trend, the “Had-I-but-known” style of mystery writing. You know: “Had I but known, I would never have accepted Count Leopold Von Vanderslythe’s invitation to a dinner party at his remote estate…” or “Had I but known, I never would’ve gone walking amongst the dunes after lunching at Lady Weatherbee’s seaside mansion…”
One of Rinehart’s fans was director Roland West, who loved The Bat play and was determined to make it into a film. He was certainly a good fit for the material. He started directing in 1916 and would make 14 films in all, several of them–like The Monster (1925) with Lon Chaney–having mysterious or spooky themes. Old dark houses, hidden passageways, cavernous dark rooms, and even mad scientists pop in several West productions. The cinematography he favored had subtle touches of German expressionism, such as dramatic shafts of light; nowadays he’s thought to be an influence on film noir. Naturally, he’s probably remembered the most today for having an affair with actress Thelma Todd, who passed away under strange circumstances during their relationship (it was thought to be carbon monoxide poisoning in a garage).
While adding some new twists to keep people guessing, the plot of West’s film followed the play pretty well. The opening title card says, “Can you keep a secret? Don’t reveal the identity of ‘The Bat.’ Future audiences will fully enjoy this mystery play if left to find out for themselves.” This would’ve sounded familiar to some people, since the play also advised audiences not to share spoilers. Despite its origins, The Bat manages to keep from seeming stagebound–indeed, West almost makes a point of having characters running in and out of various rooms, creeping through passageways, etc.
The plot, somewhere between a crime drama and “old dark house” story, concerns writer Miss Cornelia Van Gorder who rents a mansion for the summer. The mansion belongs to Courtleigh Fleming, president of the Oakdale Bank. He’s found dead, and it’s discovered that his bank is missing a large fortune–could it be hidden at the mansion? Several people turn up to hunt for the money, and it’s also pursued by an elusive, murderous thief known only as “The Bat”–a frightening figure who wears the rather cumbersome mask of a big-eared bat. (I read a review where someone compared it to the rabbit in Donnie Darko).
That freakish mask, which helps plunk this film in the “early horror” genre, was one of the tweaks West added to the story. Other artistic touches included miniatures and the figure of a flying bat, constructed by prop designer Ned Herbert Mann, and painted shadows enhancing the gloomy atmosphere of the sets. West wanted his characters to be nearly lost in the huge, dark rooms of the mansion, with its “haunted ballroom” and doors that appear almost two stories tall. This attention to atmosphere didn’t stop at set design–he reportedly had cast and crew swear to keep the identity of “The Bat” a secret, and extra eeriness was added to the proceedings by having the actors work only at night.
West’s cast was an eccentric mix and included Jewel Carmen, his wife at the time, as the obligatory screaming girl; Emily Fitzroy, best known as the dour landlady from Way Down East, as the calmly insightful Miss Van Gorder; Arthur Housman, famous for playing comic drunks, as the very sober nephew of Courtleigh Fleming; Sojin Kamiyama, ridiculously made up to “look more foreign” I guess, in the thankless role of the butler Billy; leading man Jack Pickford, Mary Pickford’s brother, as a suspect in the Oakdale Bank robbery; and former Keystone comedienne Louise Fazenda playing Van Gorder’s maid Lizzie. Fitzroy is noteworthy as the unflappable maiden aunt, knitting steadily through every frightening scenario. But Fazenda nearly steals the show as the skittish maid, positive the dreaded Bat is around every corner. One cute Murphy bed gag might’ve been borrowed from one of her Keystone comedies (and probably was). Her broad performance might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but think about it: wouldn’t this film be a lot duller without her?
The Bat was a big hit, one of the top films of 1926. West even remade it less than five years later as the early talkie The Bat Whispers (1930). And it was the latter film–not the former–that would influence Bob Kane when he created Batman. Yes, now this review is mentioning the Batman connection! Even though it was the talkie that Kane remembered, allow me to point out that The Bat used the Bat signal first.
The Bat circulates in the usual fuzzy prints, but there’s a slightly clearer one with a nice soundtrack. Although, be forewarned–it has some sound effects, and when Lizzie screams you might just jump out of your chair! Here it is below, if you dare. And c’mon, guys–don’t forget to the keep the identity of “The Bat” a secret!