The Bat (1959)

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).

Agnes Moorehead as Cornelia

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.

Vincent Price as Wells

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 Continue reading

Big Street, The (1942)

US / 88 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: Irving Reis Pr: Damon Runyon Scr: Leonard Spigelgass Story: “Little Pinks” (1940; Collier’s Magazine) by Damon Runyon Cine: Russell Metty Cast: Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball, Barton MacLane, Eugene Pallette, Agnes Moorehead, Sam Levene, Ray Collins, Marion Martin, William Orr, George Cleveland, Vera Gordon, Louise Beavers, Juan Varro, Art Hamburger, Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra.

Runyon’s tales are, of course, not noir, and yet they share noir’s milieu so knowingly that it can be hard to ignore their claims. In the case of MIDNIGHT ALIBI (1935) I was sufficiently persuaded of those claims to include an entry in the Encyclopedia; The Big Street might also have been a candidate, had I had the space.

The movie opens with scrolled text beginning:

Loser’s Lane—the sidewalk in front of Mindy’s Restaurant on Broadway—is not as high-toned a trading center as Wall Street, but the brokers are a lot more colorful.

 Generally they prefer to put their money on a prizefight or horserace, but when the action slows, anything can happen and it usually does. . . .

What’s happening today in Mindy’s is the Eating Championship of the World, organized by the merry lowlifes Professor B. (Collins) and Horsethief (Levene), the dueling trenchermen being Mr. Nicely Nicely Johnson (Pallette) and Mr. Joel Duffle (fittingly played by Hamburger); the hoodlum Case Ables (MacLane) has a hefty stake in Nicely Nicely winning. However, Nicely Nicely has fallen ill with dyspepsia, owing to unwise snacking. The Mindy’s busboy Little Pinks (Fonda)—more fully Augustus Pinkerton II—offers the services in Nicely Nicely’s place of his lodging-house co-boarder Violette Shumberger (Moorehead), but she proves inadequate to the task and the vicious Ables loses his stash.

Lucille Ball as a chanteuse facing an uncertain future.

The event’s the opportunity for Pinks to meet Ables’s chanteuse moll Gloria Lyons (Ball), whose yappy little dog Baby Continue reading

What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)

US / 101 minutes / color with some sepia & white / Filmways, Raymax Dir: Curtis Harrington Pr: George Edwards Scr: Henry Farrell Cine: Lucien Ballard Cast: Debbie Reynolds, Shelley Winters, Dennis Weaver, Micheál Mac Liammóir, Agnes Moorehead, Helene Winston, Peggy Rea, Logan Ramsey, Allen Pinson.

In the mid-1930s, in Braddock, Iowa, the sons of dowdy, dumpy Helen Hill (Winters) and glamorous dance teacher Adelle Bruckner (Reynolds) are convicted of a brutal murder. Vilified by the public and threatened by anonymous phone calls, the two women flee to Hollywood and change their names, becoming Helen Martin and Adelle Stewart and together, with the aid of diction coach Hamilton Starr (Mac Liammóir), setting up a dancing/performance school for children.

Soon Adelle catches the eye of Linc Palmer (Weaver), wealthy divorced father of one of her young students, and romance blossoms. Yet Helen’s behavior grows ever stranger, her gory visions seemingly rooted in the violent death, years ago, of her husband as he fell under the plow on the family farm; at the same time it becomes evident that the women’s anonymous phone caller—the lover (Pinson) of their sons’ victim—has traced them to their new home. When a terrified Helen pushes the lover downstairs, killing him, she and Adelle drag the corpse to a nearby roadworks, throwing it into a trench to make the death seem an accident. It seems briefly as if their troubles might be over, but of course they’re only just beginning . . .

What's the Matter with Helen (1971) - What Helen did to Debbie Reynolds

What Shelley Winters did to Debbie Reynolds

The movie’s fairly typical of writer Farrell’s noirish gothic melodramas, such as Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALLAN (1970 TVM) and most famously WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), although its first half comes with a number of distinctly un-gothicky song-and-dance routines done by Reynolds and, in Shirley Temple-wannabe mode, by her youthful charges.

While Weaver portrays a deliberately stereotyped genial rich Texan (I can’t remember him addressing Adelle as L’il Lady, but I’m sure he must), the other three principals ham it up joyously, capturing some of the Grand Guignol spirit of Tod Slaughter, who was more contemporary with the events of the plot. Moorehead has a smallish role as Sister Alma, the avaricious preacher of the aptly named Church of the Open Hand.

The movie’s overall affect, despite the abundance of talent involved—not just the leading players but crew members like cinematographer Ballard—is of a sort of pleasing mediocrity, as if director Harrington and the rest wanted to give proceedings a TV movie feel, a slight downmarket tawdriness that’s in keeping with Adelle’s efforts to make her children’s stage production glitzy.

On Amazon.com (as part of a four-movie set): Scream Factory All Night Horror Marathon (Whats the Matter with Helen, The Vagrant, The Godsend & The Outing)