Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Bat (Liberty Pictures, Allied Artists, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Alas, despite a cast that at least on paper would seem superior — Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead as the leads and Gavin Gordon as Lt. Anderson, the cop who turns out to be the Bat at the end — the 1959 version of The Bat simply wasn’t as good a movie, largely because it was both written and directed by Crane Wilbur. Crane Wilbur was one of the key people who helped “type” Vincent Price as a horror star and brought him out of the rut of second-tier character parts he’d been playing before his breakthrough movie, House of Wax (1953). Though André de Toth directed House of Wax, Wilbur wrote it and made some rather wretched changes from the original he was remaking, Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) — notably eliminating the reporter character played in 1933 by Glenda Farrell — but came up with a script that was at least entertaining, mainly because Price (as he was to do over and over and over again later) covered for the script’s inadequacies by adding a layer of camp to his performance, a winking acknowledgment to the audience: “I know you think this is preposterous and you don’t take a moment of it seriously — and I don’t either!” Though a far inferior film to its illustrious predecessor, House of Wax scored through the novelty of its 3-D (I saw it that way in 1971 and was mightily impressed), de Toth’s tight and suspenseful direction (even though he was missing one eye and therefore couldn’t see the 3-D effect himself) and Price’s performance.

Alas, The Bat was a cheapo movie whose producers, Allied Artists (née Monogram) not only didn’t shoot it in 3-D but couldn’t even afford color. Moorehead plays Van Gorder — in this version she’s a Jessica Fletcher-style mystery writer and Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane) is the secretary to whom she dictates her novels (apparently, at least according to Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Wikipedia page, this gimmick was in the original play but was ignored in the 1926 film) — and Price is Dr. Wells, this time given the first name “Malcolm” and a much more substantial part. In the 1959 Bat we’re told almost from the outset that banker John Fleming (Harvey Stephens) — a lot of the characters’ first names were simplified in this one; his son became Mark (John Bryant) and the unjustly suspected bank clerk was Victor Bailey (Mike Steele), with Dale (Elaine Edwards) playing his wife — embezzled $1 million (ah, inflation!), because after the establishing scenes at “The Oaks” (instead of the town, it’s the house that has the arboreal name) we suddenly and abruptly cut to a scene in Colorado, where Fleming Sr. and Dr. Wells are in a vacation cabin together. The banker tells Dr. Wells he stole $1 million and will give the not-so-good doctor half the fortune in exchange for his help concealing it, including finding a dead body that can be sent home in a sealed casket so it can be buried as John Fleming and he’ll be declared dead so the police won’t look for him and he can get away with his ill-gotten gains. Of course, being played by Vincent Price, Dr. Wells simply kills John Fleming, sends his body home in the sealed casket and decides to help himself to all the money — only he soon deduces that it’s hidden somewhere in The Oaks and so he has to show up at the old house and find it.

If the 1926 Bat was a lot of running around an old-dark-house set enlivened by the extraordinary style with which the tale is told, the 1959 Bat was a lot of running around an old-dark-house set dully staged by a director with absolutely no visual sense whatsoever. Even the Bat’s disguise is simply a black face covering and gloves with metal claws — a far cry from the vivid, imaginative one Roland West and his crew came up with in 1926. Nobody was going to be inspired to draw a legendary superhero comic by the sadly tacky appearance of this villain! Agnes Moorehead turns in a solidly professional performance with a script that offers her neither the pathos of her roles for Orson Welles (especially Mina Harker in the radio Dracula as well as Citizen Kane and her finest film, The Magnificent Ambersons) nor the glorious opportunities for scenery-chewing, overacted villainy she got as the mother-in-law literally from hell on the TV series Bewitched. Vincent Price just looks bored; like Moorehead, he’s dealing with a mediocre script that offers him neither the chance to act with seriousness and dramatic distinction nor the opportunity to do the delicious camp act he used to make the silly scripts he got from William Castle (and, later, Roger Corman) entertaining. He’s also unattractively photographed by the usually reliable Joseph Biroc — his face is baggy (he actually looked younger in the Corman Poe series, made later) and his movements are so slow he almost seems to be acting under water. There are other versions of The Bat available, including Roland West’s 1930 sound remake The Bat Whispers and a 1960 TV adaptation (also available on archive.org, which The Bat Whispers alas is not).