Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Bat (1926)

In a wealthy American suburb, where the women wear pearls on a quiet evening and the men smoke pipes while pondering things, and the houses look like miniatures both rustic and opulent, a killer skulks.

He (if it is a ‘he’) wears a grotesque mask over his face, complete with snout, teeth and wide ears. His coat is long and black, concealing pistols and rope and hooks for climbing walls and jimmying windows. He may be able to fly, and if he can’t, there’s some very large bats bobbing in the night sky above the homes and businesses he robs. We see these little details from the beginning of The Bat, but the police do not—they arrive on the scene just as The Bat’s gloved hand recedes from view, leaving a socialite bent over the windowpane with a broken neck. The police chief, pinching a bat-shaped paper calling-card between his fingers, can do nothing but vow:

“I’ll send ‘The Bat’ to the chair, if it’s the last thing I do!”

It just might be, Chief. We all know how effective the cops are when a super-villain shows up.

With no tights-wearing foil to keep him in check, The Bat’s career has taken off. He’s growing bold. Following an athletic robbery of the Oakdale Bank, he sets his sights on the banker’s very own sleepy mansion, which is chock-full of treasures and rumored to have a secret room. This makes blueprints as valuable as bills. But unfortunately for The Bat, and anyone else looking to pull a fast one, the banker is away. In his place is Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy), a taciturn sub-letter who misses absolutely nothing.

Soon, Cornelia’s surrounded by fools with their various agendas, including a no-account relative of the houseowner, a shifty physician, a bank teller on the run, his girlfriend (also Cornelia’s niece), Moletti the police detective (Tullio Carminati), an injured drifter, a gruesome Japanese butler, an idiotic maid, and a private dick with two six-shooters and no guts, plus another masked figure who resembles The Shadow. Cornelia greets them all with a disinterested sigh, and so do we. The Bat’s second half-hour is larded with these uncreative, unsympathetic, unfunny characters, playing their tedious game of Clue, and we’re forced to watch, knowing all the while that a bat-suited thief with super-speed is flitting in and out of dark corners and secret exits, hunting for hidden jewels and willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. Who would you rather watch?

The Bat was a hit Broadway play before it was a movie; maybe that explains its meandering middle. There’s only so much action a stage production can provide. But the 1926 film has no such excuse, and what’s worse, you’re teased into thinking it won’t need one. The Bat begins with tremendous, German-influenced camerawork, showing the villain twisting and winding down his rope, an agitated shade against a column of light. He leaps across darkened rooftops and the camera lets us follows him—together we peer through a skylight and spy his next prize. I’d hail the film if it was all like this. But once the plots shifts to the mansion’s drawing room, everything slips into low-gear. Bad comedy replaces better action.

Things do pick up toward the end. Though we’re denied more of the striking light-and-shadow interplay that opened The Bat, there’s at least a boatload of action as Our Villain returns to the foreground, finds the hidden room, pillages, threatens, then evades the gaggle of stumblebums out to get him. The identity of The Bat—a secret the film begs us not to reveal beforehand, if we know it—seems more surprising than it really ought to be. That’s a testament to the pacing of these final scenes: they distract you from the simple act of counting. And that’s all I’ve got to say about The Bat…

… but we need to talk about Batman, don’t we?

No, this is not the film that inspired Bob Kane to create the Caped Crusader, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. Like Bruce Wayne, The Bat’s a capable fighter, employing many a gadget. And there is a mansion. And a butler, though he’s no Alfred. There’s even a ‘bat signal’ moment, though the players laugh it off as a moth on a headlight. You should laugh it off too. Then go rent The Bat Whispers (1930)—it was this talkie, not its silent predecessor, which put a teenaged Kane on the path to comic book immortality.

The silent cinema did inspire one very big part of the Batman universe: the Joker. Click here to learn more about The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Emily Fitzroy also appeared in Orchids and Ermine (1927), a rarity featured elsewhere on this blog.

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