“This house gets on my nerves. Won’t let me sleep.”
With a nod to both Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires (1915-16) and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), Roland West’s terrific The Bat Whispers, based on a stage play, achieves an almost surreal cinematic form. “The Bat,” an arch-criminal especially given to stealing expensive jewelry, holds a city in suspended breath, and now he or she has set his or her sights on a country estate, currently occupied by a wealthy vacationer and her staff, where a stash of money stolen from a bank may have been hidden in a secret room. The bat’s-eye “shot” with which the film nearly opens stuns: at night—this is a film of the night—a swooping down from on-high to a pedestrian-dotted metropolitan street. Why the quotation marks around shot: our sophisticated eyes catch the cut at which point live-action replaces the camera’s descent on the miniature set preceding it; but the visual concept here nonetheless enthralls. Indeed, even today we willingly suspend our disbelief at another “shot” from the point-of-view of The Bat, who this time is presumably flying into a high open window where an unsuspecting figure sits at a desk. At the mansion, The Bat appears as a blacked-out figure, or a shadow, or a ghastly silhouette. Sometimes we see his or her eyes through the slit of the mask. The film is darkly rife with German Expressionism.
The Bat Whispers is a creepy haunted-house melodrama, laced with stagy humor (see above quotation), and a stylish whodunit (or whoisit) that engages crime from the double perspective of absolute evil and Depression-era desperation. Taking in stride a creaking step or two from the stage, West puts even these to good, scary use.
Chester Morris, who also stars in West’s Alibi (1929), is brilliant—brilliant—as the police detective who investigates the goings-on at the house and gets knocked out by a blow to the back of his head. Morris’s Lieutenant Anderson suggests the mirror-imaging, on some level the shared identity, of criminal and cop in the American, indeed the universal, landscape.
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