Movie Commentary by Walter Albert

   One of the most phenomenally successful versions of the mad killer roaming about in a gothic mansion on a stormy night is the Mary Roberts Rinehart / Avery Hopwood play The Bat. I don’t recall any version of that turning up at a Saturday afternoon matinee in my nonage, but I know of at least two film versions that precede my first matinee at the Bijou, a 1926 silent version, and a 1930 sound version, retitled The Bat Whispers.

   At an early stage in my mystery reading addiction, I was a great fan of Rinehart (especially of the delightful spunky spinster series featuring Miss Letitia Carberry), but I did not then encounter an errant bat.

   However, on a recent evening I turned out with a number of other “Friends of the Library” for a Mary Roberts Rinehart evening in the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library, of which an announced feature was to be a showing of an unidentified film version of The Bat.

   A call to the program coordinator would probably have cleared up the mystery, but I preferred to be kept in suspense, hoping against hope that it would be one of the early versions. My wife and I arrived in time to tour the collection of manuscripts, books, correspondence and other items on display from the library’s extensive Rinehart Archives, and I was delighted to find on display (but attracting no interest from the other friends) a number of original Howard Chandler Christy oils illustrating some of Rinehart’s early stories.

   They all featured dashing gentlemen in evening dress in close proximity to handsome ladies with elaborate hairdos and evening dresses that swept to the floor, all rendered in atmospheric browns and yellows, with only an occasional luminous, bloody red to suggest the criminal stories they had accompanied. This whetted my appetite for an unsettling film and it was with great anticipation that we sat in comfortable armchairs in a conference room improvised as a screening room and waited for the title and credits to flash on the screen.

   You have probably anticipated the disappointment that awaited me. The friends of the library and staff are not film buffs, and what they` had rented for our evening’s pleasure was a 1959 version made for ABC-Television, written and directed by Crane Wilbur, and starring Agnes Moorhead and Vincent Price, as spunky spinster and suspicious doctor with a penchant for experimenting on bats.

   The dialogue was awful, the budget was obviously minuscule and the movie was shot on a soundstage with a raging forest fire and exterior view of the country mansion so patently false that there was-some laughter from the audience. The saving grace was that, although the setting was rural contemporary, the film was shot in black-and-white.

   The interior of the “old” house had secret passages and dimly lit corridors that favored the action, and Moorhead was an enormously appealing spinster who, at intervals, gave some hint of the performance she might have delivered with the right materials.

   The script required that she be both a paragon of independence and a helpless female often trailed by a bevy of younger but not necessarily more attractive women while a series of suspicious male characters were alternately presented as defenders and threats.

   The last 30 seconds were beautifully handled and this was the conclusion that should have capped a brilliant rendition of the classic narrative. I have not lost my taste for such fare but it will not, I fear, be soon or well satisfied.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 8, No. 2, March-April 1984.

NOTE:   Part One of this two-part essay can be found here. Even if you read it earlier, you might wish to take another look, as several comments may have been added since your previous visit.