A mysterious old house, a masked killer, a $1 million theft, and a best-selling mystery novelist converge in 1959’s The Bat…
You thought I was going to say “Murder, She Wrote” didn’t you?
Sorry, this is Horror in Black and White, and while you’ll find no Angela Lansbury here, you will be treated to Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price!
The Bat began its life as a novel called The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart in 1908. Just over a decade later Rinehart and Jazz Age playwright Avery Hopwood adapted it for the stage, first called A Thief in the Night becoming The Bat when it moved to Broadway where it ran for more than 800 performances and spawned six touring companies.
Naturally, it was a prime candidate to bring to film, and it was adapted three times before the 1959 version that I’ve chosen. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, but only one had Agnes Moorehead in all her glory.
Perhaps one of the greatest character actresses of her time, Moorehead rarely saw herself in the leading role. In fact, she only really held that spot twice in a decades long career: The Bat and 1972’s Dear Dead Delilah, though it’s important to note that despite her leading lady status, she wasn’t given top billing here.
That went, of course, to the master of the macabre himself, Vincent Price, but more on him later, because I think Ms. Moorehead more than earned her time in the spotlight here.
Moorehead plays Cornelia Van Gorder, a best-selling mystery novelist who has rented a rather magnificent manor referred to by locals as “The Oaks” to work on her latest novel. The home has a checkered past, however. It was the scene of several murders by a mysterious, and reportedly faceless man, known as The Bat.
The home’s owner, who also owns the local bank, recently embezzled one million dollars and hid the money in the house, but is killed before he can retrieve it.
Soon, Cornelia and her maid/assistant find themselves along with a few other locals trapped in the house with someone. Could it be The Bat or is it simply an imitator out to find the money? You’ll just have to watch to find out.
What’s important here is that Moorehead is at her regal best in the role of Van Gorder. Elegant, charming, level-headed, and always in charge, she wonders at those around her losing their heads over silly stories. However with the discovery of a body, and upon seeing a masked man herself, she decides to put that rather impressive novelist’s imagination to work to see if she can figure out the mysteries around her.
Honestly, just listening to her speak in this film is a treat, as she thinks through each successive problem in her attempt to unmask the madman.
Okay, okay, we’ll talk about Vincent Price. Price agreed to do the film because he saw a production of the play as a child and it terrified him. He felt, however, that this particular incarnation was inferior to that previous play.
Still, he is Vincent Price, and even with an admittedly smaller role, he manages to impress. I’d like to say that it’s surprising the he took top billing over Moorehead, but let’s be honest, it’s not at all.
Price was the “bigger” star, and he also happened to be male and this was 1959 after all.
There’s a lovely symmetry in the two acting together. They were both formidable talents, after all, and I wonder what it would have been like to see the two play the MacBeths…?
The rest of the cast is quite good, as well, and you might find one actress, in particular, familiar. Her name was Darla Hood, and she was THE Darla from the Little Rascals films. This film was her final performance on the big screen.
The Bat has more than its fair share of tension thanks to director Crane Wilbur’s sense of place, coaxing The Oaks and its shadowed halls to life and making it a character all its own. It was also Wilbur’s decision to focus more on the horror elements in the story with this particular adaptation of the source material.
Louis Forbes also lends his considerable talents with an impressive score.
By the end of the film, when the plot has twisted and the mystery has been solved, The Bat is at its core an entertaining, melodramatic spectacle, and because it has fallen into the public domain can be viewed just about anywhere in multiple formats.
For the fair price of free, check out The Bat on Amazon Prime or even YouTube. You’ll be glad you did!