Director/Producer – Roland West, Based on the Play by Avery Hopwood & Mary Roberts Rinehart and the Novel The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart, Photography (b&w) – Arthur Edeson, Settings – William Cameron Menzies. Production Company – Feature Productions.
Emily Fitzroy (Cornelia Van Gorder), Louise Fazenda (Lizzie Allen), Tullio Carminadi (Detective Moletti), Eddie Gribbon (Bloodhound Anderson), Jewel Carmen (Dale Ogden), Arthur Houseman (Richard Fleming), Robert McKim (Dr Wells), Jack Pickford (Brooks), Sojin Kamiyama (Billy)
The Favre Emeralds are stolen by the masked and costumed criminal known as The Bat. Meanwhile, the Ogden Bank is robbed of $200,000 and its owner Courtleigh Fleming killed. Cornelia Van Gorder has rented the big old Fleming house. As she and her maid Lizzie arrive, so do various others – her niece Dale; Richard Fleming, Courtleigh’s nephew who is on the run, accused of stealing the money from the bank and has come posing as the gardener because he is in love with Dale; a detective hunting The Bat; a local doctor; and the private eye Bloodhound Anderson. The Bat appears to be lurking in the grounds and may be one of those present. The Bat kills those in his way as he searches for the secret room in the house where the emeralds and money are hidden.
The Bat was the first film in what have been termed the fad for Old Dark House thrillers. The Old Dark House genre emerged out of Broadway during the 1920s and 30s and featured a series of light thrills and scares but nothing too serious – the genre was frequently leavened with comedy and anything supernatural would be revealed to have a mundane explanation. Plots in these films usually concerned an heiress in a big old mansion being stalked by a masked criminal/killer who frequently went by the name of an animal. The highly contrived end revelation would reveal that this was an elaborate scam to defraud the heroine, find a hidden treasure or drive someone crazy. The silent era produced a number of these such as the classic The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Gorilla (1927), The Unknown Terror (1927), The Terror (1928), The Last Warning (1929) and the very strange Seven Footprints to Satan (1929). Most of these were remade not long into the sound era, especially after the success of the Bob Hope remake of The Cat and the Canary (1939) where the genre regained a new life, albeit with a much more comedic focus.
The Bat was based on The Circular Staircase (1908), a novel by American murder mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. An earlier film adaptation of the book had been made by the Selig Company with The Circular Staircase (1915) but no copies of this appear to exist today. Rinehart then reworked The Circular Staircase as a Broadway play The Bat (1920), which was co-written with Avery Hopwood, a popular playwright of the era. The main difference between The Bat and The Circular Staircase is the addition of the character of The Bat, who does not exist in the novel. The Bat proved immensely popular in its stage run and spawned many copies, including three film adaptations (see below for the others).
Roland West is a director who has never gained much recognition. History has largely consigned him to the trivia note as the boyfriend of actress Thelma Todd, with whom he was co-owning/managing a Santa Monica cafe when she was found murdered (something he was suspected of by police but never charged). West made a handful of well worthwhile silent films (many of which have been lost). His other genre entries include The Unknown Purple (1923) about a scientist who invents an invisibility ray; the Lon Chaney-starring The Monster (1925), which rehearses many of the Old Dark House elements here with a plot about an amateur detective investigating an asylum; as well as the sound remake of The Bat with The Bat Whispers (1930).
I had seen The Bat Whispers before watching The Bat but that did not prepare me for Roland West’s extraordinary direction. West peppers the film with some sensational visuals whenever we see The Bat – shots hovering overhead as it eavesdrops down through skylights; it seen climbing ropes in silhouette; amazing shots where The Bat’s ascent up a shaft is turned into his travelling up a single strip of light in the centre of the frame or where his going up a set of stairs becomes a zigzag of light that crosses the frame. Or the fabulous shot where people head up the stairs and a beam of light comes diagonally down the frame as a door is opened at the top and an intertitle card appears in the middle of the beam shouting “Give me the blue print” before a silhouetted gun appears and shoots at the people below.
Perhaps the unfortunate thing about the film is the design of The Bat – this came well before Superman, Batman and the era of costumed comic-book superheroes and villains and the only real thing that filmmakers had to draw on was Louise Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915). Crucially, The Bat came before the first film adaptations of these in the serials of the 1940s after which filmmakers realised that natural-looking superhero costumes did not look good on screen. Thus we get a costumed Bat whose cape falls without any shape. Moreover, The Bat has been outfitted with a mask that has a giant, ridiculously cartoonish set of ears that for all the world make it look like the logo for the dj Deadmau5.
The downside is also that after such a visually extraordinary build-up, the second half of the film dissolves into lots of running around the house and malarkey with the hidden room and secret door, figures skulking and everybody springing surprises on the other. The visual flair becomes replaced by comedy, as best embodied by the performance from the maid Louise Fazenda. Certainly, Emily Fitzroy makes for one of the first of the screen unflappable upper-class dowager heroines. The film reaches the sublime moment where The Bat pulls a gun on her and she coolly mentions how she took the bullets out earlier, only for this to be revealed as a bluff, culminating in the hilarious intertitle card “The first time I told a lie in my unstained life.”
One of the other negative things about the film is its blatant racism, which was fairly customary for the era. There is a manservant who is supposed to be Japanese. While this is played by what would appear to be an actual Japanese actor (at least going by the name), he has been made up with deliberately ugly and exaggerated features. Characters throughout are wont to referring to him as ‘The Jap’ or ‘The Jappy’.
The Bat underwent two remakes. Roland West made the first of these, The Bat Whispers (1930), a sound version of this that contains even more sensational visuals. There was a further version with the dreary The Bat (1959), featuring Agnes Moorehead as Cornelia and with Vincent Price as the doctor.
Full film available here