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I avoided seeing The Bat Whispers for many years because I had seen a
documentary called "The Horror of it All". In it they used clips and
gave away the killer by showing us the ending!!! Not that it cannot be
figured out by many. The great news is I thoroughly enjoyed the film
(with many repeated viewings) anyway. It has become a Halloween
tradition for me as I watch it once every year. The killer's identity
is only part of the fun.
My writing this post is due to a wonderful thunder storm we had that exactly matched the intensity and character of the storm in this film - Lightning with long pauses before thunder and NO RAIN.
I have seen tons of old dark house mystery/horror/comedies from the 20s, 30s and 40s and I dare anyone to name better ones than this, Paul Leni's two mysteries, and Whale's The Old Dark House. Many of the ODH films of that time were poverty row. Some were downright boring, others interesting, but none with such a distinctive style as those mentioned. I cannot understand the harshness people can feel about this film. One has to put themselves in a mood to watch such a film. It was never intended to be incredibly meaningful like Ben- Hur, or All Quiet on the Western Front. This is pure pulp from start to end.
The Bat Whispers, is in many ways, a forerunner to today's gigantic comic book movies. Some have much style (Batman, The Matrix, X-Men) and some are totally ridiculous with the same absurd plot holes (Batman, The Matrix, X-Men, etc.).
So, what can one expect? A totally fun, old-fashioned mystery romp that satisfies one's need for shadows, lighting, special effects, atmosphere, mystery, horror and downright silliness. This is a masterpiece in the genre and also Roland West's greatest film. It is consistent with the films that West shot. It's a shame he didn't continue with his dark style of film-making. Chester Morris has been called a ham in these posts and that's true. And what terrific ham! He gives one of the best performances in an ODH movie. His intensity was perfectly enhanced by the powerful arc lamps that under lit him, so much so that he suffered scorched retinas and unfortunately suffered visually for the rest of his life. That is a man dedicated to the art of his film! Morris makes the proceeds far more interesting than any other 'detective' I have seen in this type of film. The supporting cast makes this effectively spooky (Gustav von Seyferritz as Ven Rees leads the way).
Overall, this is stylish escapism at its' best in the old-fashioned sense. Special credit goes to the camera operators and art director. Both standard and widescreen versions are completely different takes and different films. I prefer the standard version, as Morris' close-ups are far more effective. The one when he returns and stands at the top of the stairs is avant-garde in how he is so perfectly centered and unnaturally under lit. I could go on.... a great fun film!
Great fun! The special effects are amazing for a 1930 movie. Miniaturized sets are used & although they're primitive by today's standards, keep in mind that this movie is over 70 years old. It's an excellent Old Dark House movie, complete with thunderstorms, secret passageways, a mysterious creature named "The Bat," comedic elements, a large old house, several murders, etc. It's been noted that the comic strip character, "Batman," owes some of his origins to "The Bat," & it's apparent in the outfit, the shadows cast from buildings, & in the name of the character itself. "The Bat" is indeed a pretty scary entity. The sound effects are good, camera work is excellent, & the ending is bizarre. It kept my interest throughout its 83 minutes. Well worth seeing for Old Dark House fans (this is one of the best). I rate it 9/10.
Roland West's THE BAT WHISPERS was based on a hugely successful Broadway
play, The Bat,
widely credited for having created the vogue for thriller plays in the
1920's. (The 1927
production "Dracula" which starred Bela Lugosi on stage was part of the
mystery vogue, and
led directly to the 1930 Universal film which kicked off the 30's cycle of
horror movies). West
filmed The Bat in 1926 as a silent, with great success. The 1930 remake was
production, shot simultaneously in standard 35mm and a new widescreen 65mm
Theater owners largely rejected the expense of installing 65mm equipment,
and most people
who saw this film on its release saw the 35mm version.
Among them was Bob Kane, who credited it as a major influence in his creation of Batman in the late 30's. It's easy to see why. This is a stunning looking film (I'm referring to the 35mm version, which I saw at the 2004 UCLA Festival of Preservation) gorgeously photographed by Ray June. In an old dark house where the lights are constantly going off, and lighting is frequently provided by candles, or lightning, bizarre lighting effects start to become the norm, and the dramatic possibilities take off. The director used every conceivable angle to keep things visually lively, mirroring the ridiculous complexity of the plot with a visual complexity that always keeps the viewer slightly off balance.
Much has been made of the sweeping camera moves and the use of miniatures. The miniatures are a bit obvious, but their intent remains effective if you're willing to go with it. (Being willing to "go with it" is pretty much a necessity in general for this film, which was a wild and unrealistic ride in its time, and deliberately so.) The photography benefits from a number of technical innovations, including a lightweight camera dolly invented for this production that allowed the camera to be moved 18 feet vertically in a matter of moments.
The performances - both comic and dramatic characters - are deliberately hokey, very stagey turns that were the standard for this genre. Much of Chester Morris' mugging and squinting, however, are attributable to the violently bright underlighting that was used in his closeups, which eventually scorched his retinas (a condition which became known as Klieg Eye). Within that context, they are wonderful performances. Morris is particularly engaging, as is Grayce Hampton as the patrician Cornelia Van Gorder, the middle-aged spinster who refuses to be scared out of the house. (Hampton appears to be a very capable stage actress, and offers perhaps the most natural performance in the film. She had made one previous film in 1916 and made numerous subsequent ones, usually in bit parts, until she was nearly 80.) Her no-nonsense dowager centers the film perfectly, keeping the other characters (and performances) from plunging completely off the deep end.
The plot? A master criminal, The Bat, is on the loose, a half-million dollars have been stolen from a bank by somebody else, and The Bat is trying to get it. The money has apparently been brought to a lonely mansion in a rural town (apparently somewhere on then-rural Long Island) where a middle-aged woman and her made are renting for the summer. Someone is trying to scare her out of the house, so she has sent for detectives. From there, anything goes.
Yes, this film is dated. The acting is beyond hammy; only in the early talkies did movies contain this kind of unabashedly theatrical performing. Just when you think Chester Morris couldn't possibly twist his mouth--or curl his eyebrow--or twirl his finger--in a new way, he surprises you and offers a wholly different mugging expression he hadn't pulled out before. Along with the acting, the genre (the creepy old house with hidden panels etc.) became old hat by 1950. So, all right, this movie is stilted and creaks. However, for a film antiquarian, this motion picture is a joy. Its sets and lighting are breathtaking, and one gathers from it why the play was one of the longest running on Broadway at the time. I'll take it over the Vincent Price remake, THE BAT, anyday and I love Vincent Price.
This is a great old black and white mystery/suspenser. If you have the capacity to enjoy films of the 30's and 40's and you like mysteries and fine film craftsmanship, see his movie. Chester Morris is very good as the lead. The plot is relatively true to the Hopwood/Rinehart original screenplay. The setting is an old mansion with a spinster and family members terrified by a super criminal known as the Bat. They get outside help, but the Bat strikes anyway. Who is the Bat? What does he want in the old mansion? The story answers those questions in a most old-fashioned, entertaining manner. Of the three movie versions of the Bat, the 1926 silent, the 1950's Vincent Price/Agnes Moorhead version, and this one, this is the best.
A tour-de-force of chases, shootouts, and robbery, as "The Bat" terrorizes a
city, and particularly the renters of a mansion where he makes his hideout.
Nearly everybody is a suspect, but the key lighting pretty much gives it
away. Nonetheless, West keeps the pace moving so fast that we don't really
have time to stop and think about much of anything. Features West's
trademark effects with miniatures and wires.
Some remarkable photography (in 65mm, no less) in the disappearing silent gothic tradition makes this movie a link from the newly emerging horror scene to the old "haunted house with criminals" genre into which it more properly falls.
"Goofy gothic" excellence.
Roland West first filmed the story of the Bat, a killer that steals money and jewels for their value as well as for adventure, in 1926. He then made The Bat Whispers in 1930, which is a sound version of his silent film. The transition is not entirely smooth yet rewarding. Let me first state that the silent film is easily the superior of the two. The silent film had a much more creepier feeling to it. The acting was far superior, and the sets were incredible. West does duplicate much of the sets and shots that were in his first version. The acting, however, is not very good as it is obvious that sound pictures have not been around too long. West tries to accommodate that new innovation which sometimes results in stagey scenes and long dialogue sessions. Chester Morris is...well, to say the least...a ham. His performance is a bit over-the-top for me. He does show glimmers of talent though. The story is pretty much the same and that is the film's strength. It's a fun mystery that by today's standards will seem crude and silly, but taken in context of its time should provide some entertainment. Oddly enough, the mystery seemed less mysterious in this version. I knew who the killer was with ease(trying to distance myself from the memory of the first film as I did this). West again has some impressive camera shots. The opening scene of the bat stealing a jewel from an apartment high in the sky was incredible as was the journey of the bat over a bank and following a man with a lot of money. The camera work of West is innovative, and it is a pity that his life was cut short and we did not get a chance to see him employ his talents in other projects.
No doubt about it, the silent screen acting technique is still present in
this early talkie. Everyone behaves as though they had a case of first night
stage jitters--and the supposedly comic moments are painfully obvious and
tainted with smokehouse ham.
But aside from the theatrics of some of the cast, this is an entertaining and truly spooky old dark house kind of comedy-mystery that was so popular during the '30s and '40s. What is most amazing is the fluidity of the camerawork through the innovative use of miniatures and the camera's ability to zoom forward and slink along the exteriors of an old mansion like a prowling cat. It is worth seeing alone for the atmospheric sets and photography, especially considering that this was filmed in 1930 when sound itself was only two years old.
Only Chester Morris among the performers delivers a really credible performance acceptable by today's standards of acting. The others are way over the top--including Una Merkel and just about all of the supporting players with the exception of William Bakewell.
If you're a fan of Mary Roberts Rinehart stories, you'll enjoy this version of her successful play. It's far superior to the later remake with Vincent Price. Be sure to see this in the newly released Wide Screen Version. It's a pristine transfer from the restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Based on a play that was filmed four years earlier by the same director this
is a wonderful film that is hampered only by the limitations of sound. That
said this is probably the best version of the story.
A fiend known as The Bat is lurking around the mansion of a rich family and its up to an intrepid detective to prevent him from getting the goods.
This movie is a lot of fun, with several wonderful performances especially by Chester Morris as the detective.
Interestingly the film was filmed both in the standard aspect ratio and in an early wide screen process (Both are on the DVD). The films are more or less identical, but since they were taken from different takes they both play like two different nights of the same play.
I like this film a great deal and recommend it to anyone who likes the Old Dark House genre.
THE BAT WHISPERS has a convoluted history. Mary Roberts Rinehart
(1876-1957) created this tale of a master criminal skulking around a
creepy country mansion as the 1907 novel THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE. In
1917 Rinehart and playwright Avery Hopwood to adapted it to the stage.
Retitled THE BAT, in 1920 it took Broadway by storm with its mixture of
crazy characters, corny situations, and spooky atmosphere, and in 1926
film director Roland West brought the play to the screen. Once again it
proved a great success; not only was the film an audience favorite, it
was critically well-regarded too.
It was also made just as sound began to roar. In 1930 West decided to remake the film as a "talkie." He also decided to add a few innovative bells and whistles in a visual sense as well. Many directors of early sound films had enough to do in coping with sound technology--and so they tended to lock the camera down, a circumstance that gave most Hollywood films made between about 1929 and 1933 a visually static quality. Not so West: THE BAT WHISPERS would be noted for a remarkably fluid camera that made the most of detailed miniatures and lavish sets. But more than this, THE BAT WHISPERS would truly stun audiences of the day via a widescreen format.
Widescreen format? In 1930? Surprising, yes, but true. Directors had tinkered with widescreen formats since the silent era, with French director Able Gance's 1927 masterpiece NAPOLEON a case in point--but although interesting, the results were hit and miss. With THE BAT WHISPERS, cinematographer Robert H. Planck nailed it flawlessly. He also left something of a puzzle: film historians are still not entirely sure how he brought it off. Most records seem to indicate that Planck actually shot the film on 35 mm, and then somehow managed to paste, cut, process, and reprint the original footage onto 70 mm. Regardless of how it was done, the result is astonishing, and every one who saw the film was amazed.
Unfortunately, those who saw it were few and far between. Theatre owners were still recovering from the expense of buying audio systems and they were not in a mood to pay for an expensive new screen and projection system as well. When the film went into general release, it went in standard ratio filmed by cinematographer Ray June. Again, it is hard to say exactly how this was done, but looking at both versions it would seem that June took a fair amount of Planck's footage, cropped it, and then re-shot most key scenes directly onto 35 millimeter stock.
We now come to something of a paradox. Planck's widescreen version is both visually beautiful and innovative--but Planck and director West were pretty much working without any precedent and they weren't quite sure of what do with the effect once they had it. Virtually everything is done in long shot, and when the camera isn't in motion THE BAT WHISPERS feels dry as dust and twice as slow. The June version, however, makes solid use of close-ups and medium shots, and while it sometimes feels a bit jumpy it has a better flow and a significantly better pace. Ironically, the June version is actually the more watchable of the two.
But I use the word "watchable" in a comparative sense here. The style of acting that worked so well for silent film proved horrifically awkward in sound film, and directors and actors struggled for several years to find a new acting technique. Both versions of THE BAT WHISPERS find the cast struggling in the gulf between old and new. The Planck version tends to highlight the difficulties involved; the June version softens them--but whether it be Planck or June, the performances are chiefly notable for their awkward quality.
The plot is also antiquated. Part of the charm of the novel, the 1920 play, and the 1926 film was the use of already old-fashioned plot ideas that had not yet worn out their welcome--but by 1930 the whole thing was wearing very thin, and it emerges here as overworked and lacking the necessary light touch. Every thing about the story had become very clichéd, and two years later director James Whale would wickedly spoof the entire genre with a film aptly titled THE OLD DARK HOUSE. Although the Rinehart story received one more major turn before the cameras in 1959 with Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, the type of plot involved is now more often done tongue-in-cheek, with such films as MURDER BY DEATH and CLUE cases in point.
So what, exactly, is the value of THE BAT WHISPERS for a modern, casual viewer? The answer, rather sadly, is "not much." Hardcore fans of early 1930s film will likely enjoy the film, and film students interested in the history of cinematography cannot afford to miss it--but few others will be able to see beyond the awkward acting styles and now-absurd plot to experience the charm this film--in both widescreen and standard versions--had in 1930.
The IMAGE DVD release is a bit problematic. In terms of picture, the standard ratio version has the occasional blip and blemish but has weathered very well. Although it has been restored, artifacts abound in the widescreen version; even so, the picture is very clean and they do not significantly detract from the film. Sound quality is a problem in both versions, less so in the standard ratio version, more so in the widescreen version. To some extent, this may be due to the recording technology of the era (actors tend to become fainter as they move away from the center of the sets), but it seems safe to say that the entire sound balance is off on this DVD release. You'll have to turn up the volume all the way to hear it--and where the widescreen version is concerned you'll also have to sit by the speakers.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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