Bat Whispers [1930]

Director: Roland West
Stars: Chance Ward, Richard Tucker, Wilson Benge, DeWitt Jennings, Sidney D'Albrook
Genre: Crime, Thriller, Horror
Rating: NR (Not Rated)
Runtime: 83 minutes

One of the truly oddball artifacts of the early talkie era, either a cockeyed fluke or a surrealist masterpiece. Producer-director Roland West had already done a silent film version of The Bat (1926), Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood's creaky stage melodrama about a fiendish criminal haunting a lonely Long Island mansion. The coming of sound cued a remake--now The Bat could whisper as well as skulk. And in a stroke of genius worthy of his mad mastermind, West added yet another dimension: The Bat Whispers would be one of a handful of 1930 features shot in widescreen, with a compositional emphasis on forced perspective and inky shadow play. The plot is lunacy, but there are images here that seem to have escaped from the collective unconscious. Some of the miniature work, like a plunge down a skyscraper that then tilts and cuts "subliminally" into a real-life street scene, is easy to spot, yet chances are you'll find yourself enchanted all the same. And there's a chase during which the widescreen angles suddenly drop the floor right out from under one character, and you feel it in the pit of your stomach. Like 1930's other pre-CinemaScope experiments , The Bat Whispers was shot in two versions--the 65mm Magnifilm production and one in the conventional "square" 35mm format. Deprived of the widescreen's radically unsettling asymmetry, West's movie became just another old-dark-house picture. You can see both on the DVD, and compare the standard version against the lustrous widescreen restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive (different cameramen, different setups, and occasionally different rhythm and action). On the other hand, why not just click on the real movie and prepare to go batty? --Richard T. Jameson

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