Sunday, July 05, 2020

The Bat (1959), a Sentimental Favorite, Starring Vincent Price

Cornelia Van Gorder is mystery-solving mystery novelist, much like Jessica Fletcher, but she is tougher and tarter. She started out as Rachel Innes, the heroine of Mary Robert Rinehart’s novel, The Circular Staircase, but morphed into the less sentimental character of the Broadway adaptations, titled The Bat. The original West End run featured Claude Rains, so it must have been spooky. Rinehart subsequently released a novelization ghost-written by Stephen Vincent Benet to differentiate the divergent properties. However, we are more interested in Vincent Price, who co-starred third official feature film adaptation. The dastardly villain is on the prowl, much to Miss Van Gorder’s annoyance in Crane Wilbur’s The Bat, which airs this Wednesday on TCM—and is easily findable online, having fallen into public domain.

Miss Van Gorder and her comic relief maid Lizzie Allen have rented the country home of local bank president, John Fleming, but they have trouble hiring domestic help. Evidently, the property has a bad reputation. It does not help when Fleming dies in a supposed hunting accident. Actually, it was Dr. Malcolm Wells who killed, in hopes of stealing the million bucks Fleming embezzled. Of course, he has an advantage, since he also serves as the medical examiner.

So, is Dr. Wells the notorious Bat—the faceless mad man, who has terrorized the town? He is obviously a leading suspect, along with Warner, Van Gorder’s arrogant chauffeur-turned-butler and Lt. Andy Anderson, who always seems to arrive on the scene just in the nick of too late. Whoever he is, the Bat keeps skulking around the Fleming house, in search of the missing money.

Admittedly, The Bat is not a great movie, nor is it very scary, but it is fun, in a nostalgic, Scooby-Do kind of way. It also moves along quite briskly, thanks Louis Forbes’ jaunty and brassy score, featuring jazz-exotica guitarist Alvino Rey. Wilbur certainly understood the material, since he wrote a knock-off play titled The Monster.

Of course, The Bat is primarily remembered because it features Price smoothly purring and generally chewing the scenery as Dr. Wells. If any other thesp acted like this, it would be shticky, but from Price, it is charmingly sinister. The Bat also notably stars four-time Oscar-nominee Agnes Moorehead, who portrays Van Gorder with wry don’t-kid-a-kidder attitude, in one of her only two film leads. Plus, Our Gang member Daria Hood made her final film appearance as Judy Hollander, a bank teller and potential witness in the embezzlement case.

The Spiral Staircase is true page-turner that literally defined the “Had I but Known” mystery subgenre. The Bat is a somewhat goofy excuse to sneak around an old dark house, but it is entertaining for what it is. The shadowy Bat also looks pretty cool, decked out in sport jacket, tennis shoes, and skin-tight black mask. Bob Kane credited the stage Bat as a model for Batman, but his lethal talons arguably foreshadow Freddy Krueger, as well. For vintage horror movie lovers who grew up in the 1980s, The Bat (1959) holds sentimental appeal, because it was in heavy rotation as part of the so-called CBS Late Movie programming blocks. Recommended for Price doing his thing, The Bat airs Wednesday morning (7/8) on TCM and it is on multiple apps.