"Read My Lips" is the "Batman: The Animated Series" debut of Arnold Wesker (a.k.a The Ventriloquist). The Ventriloquist is a soft-spoken and meek old man. He appears harmless on the surface. Deep down inside, he has a second personality - vicious criminal mastermind. Through a puppet called Scarface, this side of him emerges. On paper, that sounds like a ridiculous concept for a villain. As "Batman: The Animated Series" demonstrated many times before (Maxie Zeus and The Clock King are two other strong examples), such concepts can be taken seriously if presented a certain way. With the right animation, writing, acting, direction, and scoring, it works beautifully.
Director Boyd Kirkland was at the top of his game in this episode. From the first scene, everything feels ominous and alluring. The use of space, darkness, and perspective is masterful. Every character is rendered with painstaking attention to detail. The animation of body language and movement is striking. For example, this episode has one of the best instances of Batman sneaking into Commissioner Gordon's office through an open window. His shadowy figure very subtly slips in while Gordon is looking in another direction. When Gordon turns his head to find Batman walking toward him, the Commissioner's startled reaction is hilarious. Later, Scarface's massive henchman Rhino is drawn in angles that make him always tower over everyone else.
Scarface himself is cleverly staged as he's kept in darkness and seen from behind at the beginning of the episode, to create the illusion that he's just a human gangster. This tactic builds to the unforgettable moment when The Ventriloquist brings Scarface in full view of Batman for the first time. Batman's "WHAT THE HELL?" facial expression is so funny, even the producers/director have to laugh on the audio commentary as they watch it. "HE'S A PUPPET???", quips series creator Bruce Timm. Batman is understandably bewildered as he learns that the gang is expected to think of Scarface as their superior and The Ventriloquist as "just hired help". I consider this the episode's funniest sight gag.
The roles that The Ventriloquist and Scarface play in the gang is one of the most delightful ironies in an episode with many to savor not just from appearances, but also from words and meaning. For example, Rhino (who is as dumb as he is strong) takes an insult from his boss as a compliment. When Scarface exclaims, "You're too stupid to be a traitor", he responds, "Thanks, boss!" with only relief and gratitude. When The Ventriloquist tries to offer an opinion or correction, Scarface barks, "Don't put words in my mouth!" and "Shut up! I want your opinion, dummy, I'll pull your string".
The ironies in this episode's dialog are consistently amusing and we have script writer Joe R. Lansdale to thank for them. Like many of the talented actors and actresses this series secured as guest stars during its run, Lansdale should be regarded as one of its greatest coups. Lansdale is a veteran genre writer who also wrote another standout episode called "Perchance to Dream", the superb Western riff "Showdown", and the cult classic film "Bubba Ho-Tep". He has a unique pulpy/twangy writing style that is ideal for a character like Scarface. His dialog is delivered with pitch perfect conviction by George Dzundza, who plays both The Ventriloquist and Scarface as seamlessly as Kevin Conroy playing Batman and Bruce Wayne or Richard Moll playing Harvey Dent and Two-Face.
I don't think any other episode in the series so deftly balances comedy and drama. The episode is all about building suspense towards confrontations and revelations. Most of its surprises are both funny and twisted, but the final one is pure horror. Composer Shirley Walker played a key role in balancing the episode's tones with one of her most catchy, inventive, and memorable scores. It is breezy and wonderfully evocative of early 20th century gangsters for much of the episode, but often transitions from playful to foreboding whenever necessary.
The score helps the tone shift from lighter to darker without ever feeling jarring, especially at the end, when a fun fight scene set to her peppy jazz theme leads to the episode's final surprise. The Ventriloquist's dependence on his condescending second personality suddenly becomes more tragic than funny, and the episode ends on a note of immensely disturbing creepiness. Up to that point, "Read My Lips" has been funny, suspenseful, and action-packed. With the astonishing close-up that concludes it, the episode paints a truly haunting portrait. This is the character study of a deeply scarred individual, but it's told flawlessly, devoid of any scars or imperfections of its own.
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