US / 80 minutes / bw / Liberty Pictures, Allied Artists Dir & Scr: Crane Wilbur Pr: C.J. Tevlin Story: The Bat (1920 play) by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood Cine: Joseph Biroc Cast: Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, Gavin Gordon, John Sutton, Lenita Lane, Elaine Edwards, Darla Hood, John Bryant, Harvey Stephens, Mike Steele, Riza Royce, Robert B. Williams
Celebrated mystery novelist Cornelia van Gorder (Moorehead) has rented an old house in the middle of nowhere, The Oaks. It’s a sufficiently creepy place that all the servants up and leave her except her maid/companion Lizzie Allen (Lane) and her chauffeur, Warner (Sutton).
She’s rented the house from Mark Fleming (Bryant), realtor nephew of local bank president John Fleming (Stephens), who’s off in the forest on an extended hunting vacation with local coroner and John’s personal physician, Dr. Malcolm Wells (Price). When Fleming Sr. tells Wells he’s robbed the bank of a million bucks in bonds and arranged that naive clerk Victor Bailey (Steele) will be the patsy for the crime, the good doctor murders him, then chucks the body into a handy forest fire; in his role as coroner, he can ignore the bullethole and register Fleming’s death as caused by the conflagration.
The million bucks is somewhere in The Oaks, probably in a secret room. Can Wells get to it before local top cop Andy Anderson (Gordon)?
Oh, and did I mention there’s a serial killer called The Bat on the loose? He wears a mask and clawed gloves, and kills his victims—all women—by ripping their throats out.
Cornelia and Lizzie (and Warner) are obviously very vulnerable in The Oaks. Even so, Cornelia invites a pair of house-guests: Dale Bailey (Edwards), the newlywed wife of the wrongly imprisoned clerk, and Judy Hollander (Hood), his ex-secretary, who has undivulged evidence that should exonerate him in court.
That’s just the setup. Now let the murders begin . . .
This is the third of three screen adaptations of a play that was based very loosely on Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel The Circular Staircase (1908); the other two were The Bat (1926) and The Bat Whispers (1930). The story in the stage version was deliberately altered from that of the novel (which, for example, doesn’t have the Bat character) by Rinehart and her playwriting collaborator, Avery Hopwood, to avoid copyright problems. Even so, when the first movie adaptation of the play was released there was a (perfectly justifiable) outcry from the Selig Polyscope Company, which had bought the screen rights in The Circular Staircase for their own adaptation of the same name (1915).
I confess that for years I avoided this movie, even though I’d invested a whole dollar (or, on reflection, maybe just 99¢) in a DVD of it, because I assumed it was just some cheesy horror flick. In fact, as I’ve now discovered, it’s a dose of absolutely splendid fun, with one or two risible moments eclipsed by plenty of mystery, invention and occasional creepiness, complete with a few cinematographically noirish moments. A further genre connection is provided by the presence of Agnes Moorehead, who featured in a number of noir and noirish movies and was a favorite of Orson Welles. (She was his first choice as the investigator in The STRANGER , but he was overruled and the part went to Edward G. Robinson instead.)
I also have DVDs of the other two screen adaptations of the play, bought under similar circumstances, so if I come across them on the shelves I’ll try to post about them here.
Incidentally, The Bat (1926), a novelization of the play and movie, was published as if by Rinehart and Hopwood but was in fact written by Stephen Vincent Benét. Today it’s probably the ghostwriter’s name you’d want to put in big letters on the cover rather than those of the supposed authors.