When you hear the Bat whisper, you don't know whether to smile at the dated melodrama or admire some classy scenic set ups and camera work. The film may show its age with acting that is over the top, broad comic relief and a solution that for modern audiences is fairly easy to anticipate, but it looks great. The film was shot in an early version of wide-screen as well as a standard release version, using different cinematographers, cameras and set-ups. The wide-screen version is the one to watch. This is an old-dark-house creeper-thriller, with a stormy, thundering night, lots of shadowed stone staircases, massive doors and fireplaces, things that bump and thump, and, of course, a hidden room which may contain thousands of dollars stolen from a bank. More to the point, the film has a master villain who creeps and slides around wearing a bat outfit. He can shimmy up a rope in a flash or hang head down while he tips a victim out of a high window. And for fans of Bob Kane's Batman comic books plus all those Batman movies, this Bat is the grandaddy of both. He...it?...casts harsh, disturbing shadows of a tall figure with huge bat wings attached to unnaturally long arms. Is this just the work of the shadows or are his victims dispatched by some hideously deformed creature? And it whispers. All we know for sure is that the Bat is determined to frighten...or kill...his way to the stolen fortune.
The movie was based on a hugely popular stage play. The number of characters is almost large enough to make its own crowd scene. Whenever things get really tense, it seems a new character suddenly pops up. In this old mansion is the owner, a grande dame named Cornelia Van Gordon (Grace Hampton), an imperious woman with a vast bosom, a sturdy waist and a shrewd mind. How shrewd? She knows the new gardner is not what he seems when she asks him what he thinks of rubeola and he says it's a nice plant. Mrs. Van Gordon has a niece, Dale Van Gordon (Una Merkel), who seems a typical brainless flapper until we realize she's in cahoots with the false gardner. There is also a loyal maid, Lizzie (Madge Eburne), who has hysterics, rolls her eyes, prepares bear traps, sits on funny objects and acts like a cross between Patsy Kelly and Harpo Marx. There's a mysterious doctor, a small town elderly police lieutenant, a butler, a handyman who shakes violently when the Bat whispers, and a smart, big city cop, Detective Anderson, who is determined to catch the Bat and solve the bank robbery. We are faced with a question as simple as the plot, just who among all these characters could be the Bat?
Anderson is played by Chester Morris. If you're familiar with Morris' work you may recall him as a tough-guy leading man in a lot of Thirties movies. He never quite got both feet firmly on the A-level actors' list but never entirely was considered just another B-level lead. He exuded no-nonsense confidence, a kind of tall Jimmy Cagney without most of Cagney's empathy. He was always, in my opinion, an interesting actor. Then in 1941 in Meet Boston Blackie, he played Blackie, another tough, good guy detective. He was so good in the role he was instantly type cast. He played Boston Blackie in many movies during the Forties, each one a little worse than the other as the studio turned the series into a cash cow. By the time the string ran out, Chester Morris, who could be a fine actor, found himself doing television and regional theater. He killed himself with an overdose of sleeping pills in 1970 while starring in The Caine Mutiny Court Marshal at a theater in Pennsylvania. As Detective Anderson, Morris gives an odd performance that combines a clipped, sort of semi-off-and-on British inflection with a high degree of intensity.
The thing that makes The Bat Whispers of interest is the use of miniatures, especially at the beginning, the use of camera tracking shots that pull us away while walls slide back or that take us from a clock tower down to a street. Considering the weight of cameras in 1930, these shots are a tour de force. Some stunning lighting shows up, particularly when the Bat is framed against back lighting that is almost blindingly bright. And it is genuinely unnerving when the giant shadow of the bat shrivels down toward the floor and a dark, hunched shape rises up and starts slowly to limp towards us.
On balance, I think The Bat Whispers is something more than just an old and odd curiosity, but just barely.