For many, if not most members of the public, Agnes Moorehead will be the flamboyant and evil (or should we rather say “bitchy”?) Eudora from Bewitched. And it’s a pity, really, because Moorehead was a great character actress and had along and distinguished, and varied, career.
Indeed, such were her achievements, that now we are having an Agnes Moorehed Blogathon, thanks to the blog In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.
So please follow the link to check out the many, many fine blogs being involved, and then come back here as we’ve got a mysterious serial killer, a lot of embezzled money and an old dark house. And rabies-carrying bats.
Plus Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price.
Because Karavansara is doing The Bat from 1959.
“it wasn’t a good script”
Indeed, it feels like there is too much stuff going on in the 1959 adaptation of the Mary Roberts Rinehart novel from 1908 and Rinehart & Hopwood stage play of 1920.
The script is by screenwriter and director Wilbur Crane, the man who penned the Bogart classic Crime School and th e1953 horror standard House of Wax.
Karavansara readers probably remember him as the screenwriter of the 1961 adaptation of Verne’s Mysterious Island with Ray Harryhausen’s effects.
Quite a distinguished carreer.
And yet, here something doesn’t work.
To sum up the main plot points:
Mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder (Moorehead) rents an old dark house for the summer, together with her secretary and companion Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane).
The house owner and bank director mr Fleming (Harvey Stephens) embezzles a million dollar and tries to involve his doctor (Price) in his plans for escape.
The doctor kills Fleming and sets out to get the money from where they were hidden – you guessed right, somewhere in the house where miss Van Gorder is staying.
Meanwhile, an innocent is arrested for the heist.
And a serial killer known as The Bat is prowling on the premises.
And there’s real bats too, possibly carriers of rabies.
All this, in about 80 minutes.
But the true problem is not the over-abundance of plot points, but rather the excess of exposition.
The viewer is exposed to long sequences in which character A and character B bring us up to date about what happened, what is happening and what is (probably) going to happen.
It is too “stagey” – the two female leads commenting on the noises in the old dark house have a function in a stage production, where the actors are on stage and all the rest is just sound effects. But in a movie, where the camera can actually show us the blinds slamming in the wind and the draperies moving sinisterly, the added exposition feels superfluous.
And yet, and yet…
The mystery plot, while top-heavy, works just fine, chiefly thanks to the performances of Moorehead and Price, two class acts that could make the best even of a weak script.
And if their performance is certainly wonderful, it’s their voices that remain unforgettable – The Bat sounds better than it looks, and it looks great anyway.
The black and white cinematography is absolutely excellent, and makes the most of the somewhat “stagey” sets.
And also, despite his weak script, Crane as a director manages to keep us on edge through the second half of the movie, as the body-count increases, the Bat stalks the house, and obvious candidates for the role of bad guy are eliminated.
So, all in all, some great performances, beautifully staged and photographed, in the service of a weak script.
A pity the movie’s not scary, as Vincent Price himself observed.
And, to a modern viewer, the whole might look a little too much like an episode of Murder, She Wrote, but of course this is the original thing, a classic mystery-author-turned-detective story.
Today the film is in the public domain, and it can be obtained from a variety of souces, including Youtube and Internet Archive, with decent quality and sound (sound here is important!)
If you are expecting a fearsome chiller, you will probably be let down.
But if you like intelligent, well-worked out intellectual puzzles, with the extra bonus of two great actors having lots of fun with their roles, The Bat might be a good way to spend 80 minutes.
The movie is also a fine example of both old dark house and proto-slasher genres.
As a final note, I am led to wonder what 1959 audiences thought when this film was presented as a double feature together with Hammer’s The Mummy featuring Vincent Price and Peter Cushing.