The Bat

Is Mary Roberts Rinehart quite forgotten or does somebody still read her today? She seems to have a somewhat bad rep, did at least when I read her sometimes in the early 80's. I found her particular brand of semi-gothic thriller rather refreshing, probably because so much time had gone by and all her horrible clichés seemed, well, almost original. "Had I but known" is the key phrase in her books, the heroine always doing something remarkably stupid and getting herself and everyone else in a mighty jam just because there's this crucial bit of information that's been withheld from her or there's something she never understood to pass on.

The Bat is a 1926 movie based on Rinehart's play (written together with Avery Hopwood), and partly on her first and best novel The Circular Staircase, set in a secluded old mansion - with a particularly nasty criminal known as The Bat looming around somewhere in the neighbourhood. An elderly lady rents the mansion from its owner, the president of the Oakdale Bank. The bank has just been robbed and the president is dead. It seems like the culprit has stashed the loot somewhere in the mansion. There are, of course, several secret passageways in the house for nocturnal creepers-about and clandestine rooms for mysterious villains to reside in.

The menagerie of the house is colourful: the elderly lady, her niece, the kooky maid, the sinister Asian butler, the crooked nephew of the president, a shady doctor, a gardener who is in reality the cashier of the bank and suspected of embezzling the money, an inept private eye, a policeman with remarkably piercing eyes, a masked figure who creeps around the house in the dark as if he owned it and a creepy dazed guy who seems to have been hit over the head with something, or maybe he's just severely unbalanced and most likely dangerous. And one of them may indeed be the much feared Bat. Must be.

And The Bat certainly is around - and he's after the money stolen from the bank. And the money is hidden somewhere in the house, in a concealed room. But nobody knows where the room is located.

What follows is action somewhat akin to the better known The Cat and the Canary (which in fact is written and filmed later than The Bat - and hence probably influenced by it), suspense, laughs, horror, claustrophobia, death - and the unmasking of the villain. Who turns out to be the policeman. In fact he's an impostor, the real policeman is the dazed fellow whom The Bat has hit over the head and whose papers he's stolen.

Now The Bat is an interesting character indeed. In the very first scene of the movie he sends a gloating note to a millionaire announcing that he's going to steal the millionaire's invaluable emeralds - and there's nothing anybody can do to stop him. The millionaire alerts the police and soon his house is bursting with boys in blue. The Bat goes ahead and steals the emeralds anyway, makes an easy getaway and leaves an acerbic taunting note written on bat-shaped paper. He's dressed in a frightening bat mask with pointy ears and wears a black cape. He scales any wall with his ingenious ropes almost as if he were flying. He has got his own bat signal - he projects a bat on the wall with a lamp to scare people.

Now of whom does this remind one?

Batman, obviously.

I'd be immensely, hugely surprised if Bob Kane hadn't seen the movie and been quite influenced by it, maybe even got his hero almost directly from it. It's clear that this is the world from which Batman stems, the world of the silent movies with their pulpish plots and theatrical characters. Indeed, many of the early adventures could be straightforward silent movie scenarios. And the Joker, for instance, is simply a comic book version of Conrad Veidt's unforgettable Gwynplaine from the 1928 The Man who Laughs by Paul Leni - physically that is. It's the same leer, the same deathlike grin. Those who've read The Black Dahlia (or even seen the pretty lacklustre movie version) will remember the movie; it has got a really ghoulish nightmarish quality to it, but it's also extremely tragic and touching.

The Bat is not a particularly good movie, even in it's own genre. It's ludicrous, none of it makes much sense at all, but it's fun. Ripping fun, actually. It was even remade twice, in 1930 as The Bat Whispers and 1959 as, again, The Bat, with no less an actor than Vincent Price.

It may be worth a mention that the director Roland West, who also did the 1930 version, gained unwelcome notoriety a few years later when he was implicated in the possible murder of his girlfriend Thelma Todd. Todd was an actress, pretty famous, as it happens, as she'd appeared in several Laurel & Hardy features, two Marx movies (Monkey Business and Horse Feathers where she played the vampish College Widow) and, this pretty much clinches it for me, in the 1931 original version of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon where she played Iva Archer, the wife/widow of Spade's unlucky partner Miles Archer. She specialised in tough, hard-as-nails blondes, and never was there a more convincing tough blond than she. Never were nails quite as hard as in her case.

The Todd murder is one of the legendary Hollywood murders and it never was solved. West was a strong suspect, but so was Lucky Luciano. It's interesting, however, to notice that West never worked in Hollywood after the Todd murder. And naturally there is supposed to be a deathbed confession, which, a bit conveniently, only surfaced some thirty years after West's death.

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