The Bat by Mary Roberts Rinehart has to rank as one of the most secretly influential works of fiction of the 20th century. If you’ve ever seen or enjoyed a film or book about a group of eccentric characters stranded in a purportedly haunted old country house, (think The Old Dark House or The Cat and the Canary) you’re aware of many of the now-clichés that originate with Rinehart’s classic comedy-mystery, but even if you haven’t, it’s impossible not to know what is by far the most famous and ubiquitous character to have taken its cue from The Bat: DC Comics’s Batman.
The Bat was a stage sensation in its day, premiering in 1920 and earning rave reviews, packed houses, and two Broadway revivals before the phenomenon finally drew to a close. But what concerns us the most here are the three film adaptations: The Bat in 1926, The Bat Whispers in 1930, and finally, The Bat again in 1959. All three are entertaining films, but the first two versions, both from director Roland West, are particularly interesting for their cutting-edge visual techniques that give the quintessentially old-fashioned story a shock of the new that may surprise viewers that think of silent and early sound films as dusty, stagebound relics.
First, 1926’s The Bat. As an introduction to the world of silent-pulp cinema, you could do far worse than the opening sequence of this film, which is stylish enough to take your breath away almost a hundred years later. It depicts a wealthy owner of priceless jewels being terrorized by an infamous superthief known as The Bat, who vows via written letter to steal the jewels at exactly midnight, no matter what precautions he or the police may take. Naturally, The Bat is able to back up his threats in a timely fashion, murdering his victim in the process, and leaving behind a calling card in the shape of a bat, further taunting the police. It’s hard to state how exciting this opening sequence is in both The Bat and its 1930 sound remake, an unforgettable introduction to the character that both films struggle to live up to.
The plot of The Bat continues to an old country manor, where the superthief tracks another wealthy family in order to try and frighten them out of a sizable inheritance. But the specific mechanical turns of the plot are less important than the personal style of the villain carrying them out, and 1926’s Bat might be the most striking of them all. For his terrifying criminal costume, this Bat has sought nature’s bats as his primary inspiration, complete with a realistically rendered bat’s head as his mask. The practicality of stalking around a country estate wearing an oversized rodent head over his face aside, it’s an indelible image, one that works particularly well in terrifying close-up.
The most significant image in The Bat comes midway through. The occupants of the house are terrified of a circular light with the image of a bat in its center projected and threateningly moved about the wall from outside — that’s right, it’s the Bat Signal, put to a different purpose but still a Bat-Signal all the same, in a movie from 1926. Pulp scholars acknowledge the influence of a Phantom Detective story on the creation of the Bat-Signal, but here we have pretty much the exact same image that would later become synonymous with Batman’s war on Gotham City crime tucked away in a silent movie from 1926, even though it was the later film The Bat Whispers (which for whatever reason does not retain this “shadow of The Bat” gag) that was specifically cited by Bob Kane as an influence on the creation of Batman.
Which brings us to The Bat Whispers. I first saw this movie several years ago on the big screen as part of the Alamo Drafthouse’s “Superkrime” retrospective featuring pulp supervillains on film (yes, such things do happen). Not knowing anything about it beforehand, I was amazed to see a film of such visual ingenuity from 1930. First off, The Bat Whispers is one of a very few 1930s films to be shot in widescreen (in this case, “MAGNIFILM”), which creates an otherworldly visual sensation right away. Even apart from the widescreen cinematography, The Bat Whispers is an incredible showcase for all the techniques available to the imaginative filmmaker in the early 30s, including some impossible tracking shots up past tall buildings and into windows. As for The Bat himself, in this incarnation he opts for a less authentically batlike and more stylish black ensemble that was a clear influence on Batman — I can’t help but imagine a parallel timeline where it was The Bat rather than his do-gooder visual counterpart that became an enduring pop culture icon with new comic books, films, and TV series still being made even now. Wouldn’t you like to see a Bat who perpetrates stylish crime rather than combats it?
Audiences simply weren’t ready for a movie like The Bat Whispers in 1930. They were barely able to process the concept of synchronized sound, so a talking picture as visually spectacular as Whispers was like Marty McFly doing hair metal riffs in 1955 — too darn loud. But thankfully it’s still out there and available for viewers more acclimated to its visually feverish atmosphere, and worth seeking out if you’re at all interested in the high style echelons of crime.
The Bat got its last Broadway revival in 1953, and a few years later a new version arrived on the screen. This version of The Bat stars Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, but the real star of the show is the very cool third design for The Bat himself, a classic fedora, coat and black mask ensemble completed by a set of shiny steel claws on the gloves. Altogether we have three sartorial approaches to stylish supercrime, all with their own strengths and weaknesses — a valuable curriculum for any aspiring fiend.
The 1959 version of The Bat is a very fun and watchable throwback mystery, thanks in no small part to Moorehead and Price both giving effortlessly funny and charming performances. At some point or another it slipped into public domain, so it has become one of those movies that turns up at every library sale and dollar store DVD section, but there are some decent looking copies of the film out there as well.
There are only three official screen adaptations of The Bat, but the play was unofficially adapted countless times. If you ever stumble across an old black-and-white movie about a handful of zany characters trapped in a confined location and menaced by some sort of weird supercriminal, you can be certain it has some of The Bat’s DNA swimming inside it.
The Bat was already a bit of a nostalgic exercise in 1959, so it’s not especially surprising that no one has tried to make another version in the last 60 years. But given the multiple new enthusiasms for outrageously costumed characters like The Bat that have cropped up in those intervening decades, it would make sense for a new screen Bat to take center stage, and bring his theatrical flair for murder and robbery into the 21st century.