Sunday, July 25, 2010

June 29, 2010: Psychobabble recommends ‘The Bat Whispers’

Roland West’s The Bat Whispers
(1930) is far from a perfect movie. The creaky plot about a seemingly supernatural burglar/murderer was surely fresher the first time around in the 1920 Broadway play The Bat and the second time around in West’s silent 1926 chiller of the same name. West telegraphs his big surprise ending about a half hour before the picture ends with lighting and makeup. Perhaps revealing a character’s villainy by lighting him from below, mussing his hair, and giving him dark circles under his eyes had yet to become a trope in 1930, but this kind of stuff has since become easy shorthand for “Look out! This cat’s evil!” What’s more, West’s talky script is a bore, and the ample moments of comic relief are as funny as screwdriver in the pee hole.

Maude Eburne, you’re no Una O’Conner.

Yet The Bat Whispers remains remarkable for West’s staggeringly inventive trick photography and swooping camerawork. The opening shot, which zooms in on a bonging clock tower before plummeting down its length to a bustling Manhattan street, is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in a film from this era. He also makes the best use of shadows since Nosferatu. For much of the film, the title villain is only seen as a black shape stalking along walls, and when we finally meet him in the flesh, that shadow collapses to the floor only to have a hooded figure grow back out of it in unsettlingly bizarre fashion. I’m not sure how West achieved this shot, and that’s OK by me because I wouldn’t want its magic spoiled. There’s also the terrific setting, an old dark house loaded with secret passageways, the wonderfully stormy atmosphere, and an utterly charming epilogue in which star Chester Morris informs the viewers that The Bat is a good friend of his who would surely go on a murder spree if anyone in the audience dares reveal the film’s twist ending. With such a knack for getting a large group of people to do what he wants by scaring them, Morris could have gotten himself a job in the Bush administration.

The Bat would be remade under its original name yet again in 1959, and while very entertaining and sporting superior performances from the likes of Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price, it’s no visual match for The Bat Whispers.
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