Master criminal the Bat has the police flummoxed. He steals jewelry and pummels (sometimes kills) owners regardless of the precautions they and law enforcement take, often leaving taunting notes. He even issues warnings ahead of time. What a gentleman. After one especially brutal robbery, the Bat announces his retirement to the country. He’s giving the cops a breather.
Of course, he’s not retiring. Someone has robbed the bank in rural Oakdale while its president, Mr. Fleming, is in Europe. The prime suspect is bank clerk Brook (William Bakewell), who disappeared right after the robbery.
The Fleming country house, full of the requisite secret passages and movable portraits, is leased to the indomitable Miss Cornelia van Gorder (Grayce Hampton). With her is her terrified maid, Lizzie Allen (Maude Eburne). The caretaker (Spencer Charters) tells them about the strange noises in the house and the flickering lights, all courtesy of the ghosts.
Miss van Gorder isn’t having any of it. Her niece, Dale van Gorder (Una Merkel) comes for a visit and brings a young man she recommends as a gardener who is, in fact, her boyfriend, Brook, the missing bank clerk. Cornelia interviews him to test his gardening knowledge. He has none, and apparently has a limited vocabulary as well, making for one of the cuter exchanges in the film. Cornelia hires him anyway, just to see what he’s about.
Dr. Venrees (Gustav von Seyffertitz) arrives, saying that he’s heard from Mr. Fleming in Europe, telling him Cornelia has to vacate the house as he’ll be returning to deal with the bank robbery… or is he? And other than Dr. Venrees’ word, how does the viewer know Mr. Fleming is coming back?
The audience knows that Brook and Dale (see what the writers did there?) are looking for the missing bank money. They want to clear his name. They believe the real thief has hidden the loot in a secret room in the house. Unfortunately, they’ve got competition from just about half the county, including… the Bat!
This is a cute little haunted house mystery, but the character of the Bat is not a sympathetic one. He kills people for jewelry because he finds killing amusing. Not many people in this movie are sympathetic. There is the imperious and sinister Dr. Venrees, who leaves a door unlocked after a rock with a threatening note tied to it is hurled through the window, even though Cornelia asks him to lock it. He later goes back and deliberately unlocks it again. Whom is he letting into the house?
There is the mysterious and morose caretaker. Has anyone but he seen these ghosts? When Dale calls the bank president’s nephew Richard (Hugh Huntley) to the house, hoping for help, why does he act so strangely?
The body count isn’t as high as some Sunday night murder mysteries, but it’s greater than zero.
This film was restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive. The print quality for a film ninety years old is excellent. The audio is a little goofy, however, making the dialogue hard to catch at points. Turning the volume up leaves one at the mercy of an earth-shattering—if rainless—thunderstorm. (Because of course there’s a storm). This is a shame because the dialogue is delightful and entertaining.
Early on, when Cornelia and Lizzie are discussing the house and the “ghosts,” Cornelia asks for a Ouija board. Lizzie tells her there’s Bible on top of it, “keeping it quiet.” She also tells Cornelia, after the latter has insulted her: “I stuck by you when you was a Theosophist and a suffragettist, and I’ve seen you through socialism, Fletcherism, and rheumatism, but when it comes to spookism, I’m through!”
The Bat Whispers was originally a stage play based on a 1908 book, The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It also uses fairly sophisticated camera technique for the day. For example, the viewer see action from the perspective of the back seat of a speeding patrol car. This is routine today but, I imagine reasonably difficult with the movie cameras of 1930. There is a lot of action in silhouette, so the viewer knows what happened—maybe—but whom did it involve? At the very end, once the Bat is unmasked, he swings down from the top of the stage and promises the audience that as long as they keep his identity secret, he won’t haunt their houses, kill them, and rob them. Lovely.
The movie was later remade into the 1959’s The Bat with Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. In his autobiography, Batman and Me, comic book writer Bob Kane noted that The Bat Whispers was one of the inspirations for, yes, the character of Batman.
This movie is not everybody’s cup of tea. Sometimes this stuff takes a little work to get through. And, given that there is not much redeemable about the Bat, some would not enjoy it even without the technical obstacles. Having said that, I confess I liked this film. It’s funny, poking fun at melodrama in many respects. Of course, there’s a happy ending for the lovers. Cornelia remains unflappable. And the timid little maid who appears foolish and jumps out of her skin at the drop of a hat achieves what all the men with their guns fail to.
If social distancing is making you a little stir crazy, this is worth a look-see. Beer/vodka and pizza optional.
The movie can be watched in its entirety here.
Title: The Bat Whispers
Director: Roland West
Writers: Mary Roberts Rinehart (based upon a stage play by) and Avery Hopwood (based upon a stage play by)
Released: November 13, 1930
length: 1 hour, 24 minutes