Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE BAT WHISPERS (1930)

Artistically, the early sound period was a stagnant one for the Hollywood studios.  Where as filmmakers of the silent era had achieved a great deal of cinematic mobility, directors and crews of the late 1920’s were virtually handcuffed by the new sound technology.  Cameras had to be housed in large boxes, tiny rooms actually, to prevent the sounds of their noisy mechanisms from being recorded by the microphones.  This had the effect of nailing the cameras to the floor.  Another detriment to the new medium of talkies was the unfortunate fact that audiences of the time wanted one thing in their films: Talk.  Of course, that novelty would eventually wear off, but a director named Roland West would not wait to restore mobility to the cinema.  He would not take the easy way out and demanded so much more of his crew.  As the sound period progressed and quieter cameras were introduced, inventive directors like West were able to free cameras from their “ice boxes” and develop a more sophisticated shooting style.  Though most films of 1930 were still fairly primitive, West’s film of that year, THE BAT WHISPERS, is absolutely goofy with camera tracking and craning.  In fact the camera’s constant movement from the outside of buildings in through the windows and doorways etc., is a precursor to shots in CITIZEN KANE (1941).  Of course the West film, with its comic book type story of a master criminal who dons the disguise of a bat, is certainly not up to Orson Welles standards, and all the camera acrobatics grow tiresome, though it can be argued that such probing perfectly compliments a mystery story about the search for a criminal’s identity.  The search in question takes place in and around a creepy old mansion owned by an old lady, Mrs. van Gorder, and her niece, Dale (Una Merkel).  Also present are Dale’s boyfriend (a cashier from a bank that has just been robbed), a frightened maid, who provides a particularly annoying brand of comedy relief and a sinister doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz), as well as several others.  It seems there is a large sum of money (the booty from the robbery) in a hidden room that has attracted the avarice of everyone.  Where is this room?  Who is “The Bat”?  Is he lurking around?  Detective Anderson (Chester Morris), is nowhere near the truth.  “The Bat” is the center of attention as a killer is on the loose (This is an “old dark house” thriller, after all).

All of this (particularly the characters of the maid and doctor) is so much of another era, that we must watch the film with a sense of the comedic and dramatic conventions of the time.  This stuff must have wowed ’em in 1930. 

Even the hoariest scenes are handled with great panache.  The most impressive shot comes when Detective Anderson, in hot pursuit, leaps over a railing and runs through a courtyard, the camera following him all the way. But do these unusual touches ultimately save a film ravaged by time?  No, but if not for Roland West, a man with a unique artistic vision, the film would not even be remembered today, and I would not bother to write a review of THE BAT WHISPERS.  

CREDITS: Written and directed by Roland West. Photography by Ray June and Robert Planck.  Starring Chester Morris, Una Merkel, Grayce Hampton, Maude Eburne, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Chance Ward, Spencer Charters, William Bakewell. Originally released in Magnifilm, an early wide screen process.

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June 28, 2010 - Posted by | Chester Morris, early sound film, film directors, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Orson Welles, Roland West, screenwriters, Una Merkel | , , , , , , , , ,

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