So much of my youth was spent watching some television shows centered on some reclusive genius who showed up when called upon to solve crimes. No matter the program, these procedurals followed the same structure. A big event would happen in the show’s opening moments, and then the detective (or pseudo-detective, private investigator, or beat cop) would spend the bulk of the hour gathering witness statements, considering the evidence, piecing together what went down, and ultimately expose the evildoer in the show’s closing moments, leaving just enough time for a handy epilogue. Naturally, this format evolved a bit over the years – sometimes the protagonist was older, maybe a retired physician, someone with a dog or a fondness for sweets, or even lady detectives got into the act (what with their feminine intuition) – but the assembly stayed true: before the credits rolled, you could rest assured that justice – in whatever shape it took – would be served. That’s just the way TV worked.
It wasn’t long before this formula made the transition to the motion picture house. Granted, more money was spent on film – meaning largely that the stakes could be raised, and our hero (or heroine) were afforded a whole cast of supporting players. But try as they might storytellers still clung to what worked best: use the bulk of the running time to go about the procedure of showing just what a genius our lead researcher was, and then allow that hero to save the day. Maybe – just maybe – set the stage for a sequel. There’s always room for more.
Released in 1959, The Bat pretty much fit the mold for what audiences of that day wanted from their murder mysteries. Give the killer a bit of flair. Present the hero as a respected member of some wider community. Raise the stakes – meaning deliver more victims – as the plot thickens. Bring it all to a head in the last reel. That’s what the public wanted, so that’s what Hollywood delivered, compliments of a script that tries (but not too hard) to push boundaries in ways that might even tempt fans of other genres to tune in and check out what all of the excitement was about.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
“The predator has steel claws and rips his victims to shreds! But who is he? Vincent Price stars in this thriller about a dilapidated estate that becomes the site of a grisly murder …”
There’s a bit more, but I’m going to leave it at that as the printed synopsis is really far too much advertising copy than it is legitimate plot summary, and I do try to avoid that stuff. Suffice it to say that The Bat is a little bit of a few things – of which I’ll discuss below – but never quite settles into a single narrative focus to be as entirely interesting and effective as it could. It isn’t bad, as it is: it’s just … well … it’s all over the place.
Essentially, The Bat takes the shape of a Horror-tinged murder mystery, but it does so with really broad strokes. Some of this is owed to the fact that writer/director Crane Milbur’s adaptation of the Mary Roberts Rinehart novel (previously turned into a stage play) dabbles with the usual trappings: this old house has a bit of a local mystery surrounding it, the townsfolk even chatter on about the place’s curious legend, and aging novelist Cornelia van Gorder (played by Agnes Moorehead) even vows to ‘get to the bottom of things’ with the help of her hired held and a small cavalry of little ladies. For those who understand the reference, it helps to think of The Bat not unlike an episode of TV’s ‘Murder, She Wrote’ and you get the idea. No matter how many bodies might pile up (and there are a few), this one maintains a fairly saccharin affair.
However, casting Hollywood legend Vincent Price in one of the central roles probably helped amp up the camp factor both then and now. Price stars as the town’s Dr. Malcolm Wells, a curious insider who just happens to be in the right place at the right time to both learn the possible whereabouts of a hidden one million dollars as well as demonstrate that he’s willing to kill for it. (Whatever happened to the doctor’s oath of “First, do no harm”?) But despite the fact that he might be in on the whole caper, the audience is never treated to any scene of the good doctor actually trying to locate the hidden loot. Why, it’s almost like he’s decided to take a back seat and let the rest of the action unfold.
Still, all too much of The Bat runs on melodramatic hyperbole. As I said, the bank’s been robbed of their assets, and it’s hinted at being akin to the crime of the century. Then, an unexplained forest fire breaks out just in the nick of time to give Dr. Wells plausible cover for the murder he did. Then, the main plot gets set aside for a brewing ‘storm of the century’ back in town. Apparently, nothing small ever happens ‘round these parts, and this is about the time when The Bat – an uncharacteristically nightmarish and violent predator for the 1950’s – gets introduced as the main killer, amping up the exaggeration even further. Thankfully, it’s after this that things kinda/sorta settle down, and we’re treated to an actual s-t-o-r-y instead of more embellishment.
It's worth noting that author Rinehart was a bit ahead of her time in crafting what would become big screen and TV business: the female-centric mystery procedural was her mainstay, it would seem. As I mentioned above, much of The Bat feels like the inspiration for the elderly lady sleuth who spends her days split between writing books and solving crimes. Mystery purists will tell you that Rinehart’s work predates even the vastly more popular Agatha Christie’s pen, making her library one worth looking into. Sadly, she seems to have been forgotten for her contribution to literature as even scholar Jason Ney remarks in his essay provided in this disc’s collector’s booklet.
The Bat (1959) was produced by Liberty Pictures. DVD distribution (for this particular release) is being coordinated by the reliable folks at The Film Detective. As for the technical specifications? Once again, let me confess that I’m no trained video expert, but it is rare to see these older black-and-white flicks looking as damn good as this one does: images are crisp, and the audio levels are solid. As for the special features? The collection includes a feature-length commentary from film scholar Jason A. Ney; a companion essay (collector’s booklet); a featurette exploring The Bat’s writer/director Crane; and some archival radio broadcast episodes featuring Price himself. It’s a great assortment that should keep fans ‘batty’ for a while.
At best, The Bat (1959) is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s not quite Horror, but it has Horror elements. It’s not quite Thriller, but it embraces a bit of the Thriller’s conventions. And while it’s largely been regarded as a whodunnit the cast of characters really offers only a slim picking of legitimate subjects, so it really isn’t all that difficult to figure out who the odds favor as a guilty culprit. Still, it perseveres – probably best owed to Moorehead and Price’s work – and makes for an easy-on-the-eyes 80 minutes. Worse things could be said.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at The Film Detective provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of The Bat (1959) by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.