A publicity still culled from a climatic scene during The Bat Whispers.

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During the 1920s, haunted house mysteries were the rage on Broadway and Mary Roberts Rinehardt's The Bat (co-authored with Avery Hopwood) was one of the hottest properties (along with The Cat and the Canary). In 1926, director Roland West directed the first film version of The Bat, a relatively faithful version that adhered to Rinehardt's play by placing a wealthy matron at its center, who proceeds to unravel the mystery. However, in 1930, when West directed his second film version of The Bat, renamed The Bat Whispers, the focus was shifted away from the matron in favor of the Bat, and the movie is much the better for the shift. The suspense is heightened and the atmosphere is more malevolent. The Bat Whispers nonetheless still bears many of the problems that typically plagued haunted house mysteries--such as the ineffectual comic relief that frequently detracts from the suspense. But this is still an impressive movie.

The movie contains several stunning images accomplished by the use of a lightweight camera dolly created by technician Charles Cline. The dolly allows the camera to swoop down the sides of buildings as if it's moving with the Bat. In one of the movie's most effective camera shots, the camera moves across a lawn toward a mansion. It glides over the shrubs and driveway and toward a second story window. In between flashes of lightning, the screen darkens briefly, and during this time, the camera slips through a window and into a darkened corridor within the mansion. Stunning shots like this one, which in later decades would be termed Hitchcockian or Wellesian, are largely responsible for interest in The Bat Whispers today. While common knowledge says the bulky cameras of the early sound era made camera movement difficult, The Bat Whispers shatters this myth.

Also playing an important role in the movie's reputation, of course, is the presence of the Bat himself. He's a caped villain who occasionally steps from the shadows and raises his arms to create a bat-shaped shadow. (The Bat was reportedly an influence upon Batman creator Bob Kane.) He makes an especially eerie entrance late in the movie when the heroine enters a secret room within the mansion. As the secret door closes, she becomes trapped. A huge shadow appears, arms/wings outstretched in the familiar shape of the Bat. And then as the light shifts, the figure begins to shrink. It collapses upon itself into a twisted form that lurches forward and whispers, "Keep quiet! Or I will kill you!"

The Bat is a master criminal who announces a jewel theft will take place. He loves the attention this brings. With the police swarming around his intended victim's apartment, the Bat plots to sneak in and steal the jewels. However, a rival crook beats him to the quarry and this sets the story in motion -- for the Bat must figure out who has defeated him at his own game before he can reclaim the jewels. The crime path leads to a house leased by wealthy spinster (Grayce Hampton). With the mansion grounds now swarming with an odd collection of people -- the spinster's niece (Una Merkel), a detective (Chester Morris), a doctor (Gustav Von Seyffertitz), the niece's boyfriend (William Bakewell), a maid (Maud Eburne), and several others -- the Bat attempts to reclaim his loot by scaring everyone away.

The Bat Whispers is now available on DVD from the Milestone Collection and Image Entertainment in a presentation that includes both the 35mm and 65mm versions. In December 1998, Milestone released these versions on separate VHS tapes. Now the two versions are together on one DVD, with the sharp DVD transfer rendering the VHS versions obsolete.

Hollywood briefly flirted with the widescreen format in the early '30s. Movies such as The Big Trail and Billy the Kid appeared in this format, but exhibitors screamed about the cost of installing expensive new projection equipment and audiences complained about inflated ticket prices. While The Big Trail and Billy the Kid were frequently screened in 35mm versions, these versions were created by lopping off the edges of the widescreen versions. In contrast, Roland West filmed two versions of The Bat Whispers, with Robert Planck photographing the 65mm version and Ray June photographing the 35mm version. The two versions are entirely separate. They are similar, yes, but the two cinematographers frequently took entirely different approaches to the scenes.

In particular, June occasionally employed close-ups as dramatic punctuation in the 35mm version, but Planck almost never uses close-ups in the 65mm version. For example, in an early scene, the camera watches as a man embezzles money from a bank vault. The camera is perched high above the bank entrance, but at the right edge, a figure sways back and forth. In the 65mm version, this figure -- the Bat -- remains a blur, but in the 35mm version, June provides a close-up of the figure and reveals that the Bat is a man in a long black cape. At other times when the movie reaches a dramatic climax, June pulls in close on the characters. When Detective Anderson accuses the niece of committing a murder, June uses a close-up to show us Anderson scowling and the niece crying. However, in the 65mm version, the camera curiously remains at medium distance. This same pattern is repeated over and over during The Bat Whispers, as if Robert Planck (or possibly West) thought close-ups weren't appropriate with widescreen films.

While the movie looks great in 65mm, Planck doesn't seem committed to the widescreen format. Many of the scenes are framed as if they were shot for 35mm -- with blackness obscuring the left and right edges. However, several of the sequences that utilize miniatures, such as the aforementioned tracking shot toward the mansion, play out better in 65mm. In 35mm, when the camera moves over the yard, it almost comes to a dead stop before finding the blackness after a flash of lightning (and then entering the mansion). In 65mm, no hesitation exists during this camera movement. The camera fluidly moves across the lawn and into the mansion. During another scene that utilizes miniatures, an automobile belches out a cloud of smoke. The smoke lingers on a highway, causing the following driver to lose control of his car. In 65mm, the smoke becomes adequately thick, but in 35mm, the smoke has begun to dissipate before the car arrives.

Little differences like these suggest that more care was taken while filming the 65mm version; however, June's superior use of the camera makes many scenes more effective in the 35mm version. In either version, The Bat Whispers is still fun to watch. (Both June and Planck had long careers in Hollywood, frequently working on MGM musicals. Among their many credits, June photographed The Great Ziegfield, Babes in Arms, and Funny Face, while Planck photographed Our Daily Bread, The Man in the Iron Mask, and Anchors Aweigh.)

Director Roland West was only 43 years old when he filmed this movie; however, the following year, after filming Corsair with Thelma Todd as his leading actress (who he was romantically involved with at the time), West's Hollywood career ground to a halt. Corsair was his final movie, and four years later, his name would become forever linked to Todd's when her battered body was discovered in a garage. Her death was officially ruled as suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. However, rumors persist to this day that she was murdered and West was considered a prime suspect in a case that was never solved.


The Bat Whispers is available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The DVD contains both the 35mm and 65 versions. Suggested retail price: $24.99.