Retro Review: On The Trail Of The Fedora-Killer In “The Bat”

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The Bat is a mediocre mystery from 1959 whose only apparent points of interest are a) the masked title character and b) Vincent Price in a supporting role. A staple of the public domain ghetto, it is easily located online or on budget DVDs, in a drab, unloved print.

That said, what fascinated me enough about this film to warrant two viewings and a half-dozen or more paragraphs? Read on…

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The Bat is based on the 1920 play of the same name by Mary Roberts Rinehart (itself based on her 1908 book The Circular Staircase). It has has seen a couple of screen incarnations (the second, 1930’s The Bat Whispers, possibly an inspiration for a certain famous Caped Crusader). And the 1959 “Bat’s” stage origins are quite noticeable, with somewhat static direction by Crane Wilbur (who also helmed Price’s much better-known flick House of Wax), and chatty, ambling dialogue.

Agnes Moorehead (Samantha’s mom on Bewitched) plays murder mystery novelist Cornelia Van Gorder, who leases a big old spooky house and conveniently finds herself in the middle of a murder mystery. Yes, just like Murder She Wrote—if the classic TV show had possibly rabid bats on the loose.

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if you’ve been feeling lately that you haven’t had enough Agnes Moorehead in your life, you’ve struck gold with “The Bat”

Cornelia leases a large spooky house in a town where apparently everybody is a refugee from a Coen Brothers movie. And by that I mean to say—virtually every resident of presumed respectability are eyeballs-deep in life-ruining intrigue. I guess that’s partially why The Bat has captured my imagination—the citizens are so screwed up and nihilistically corrupt from the word “go”.

For example, the movie starts with the head of the bank calmly walking into the office of the town doctor (played with cunning foppish indifference by Price) and announcing that he just stole all of the institution’s funds; putting the blame on the innocent cashier who is now languishing in jail. The banker then just as calmly offers to cut the Doc a deal by killing an innocent man and switching identities with the body; the doctor just as calmly kills the banker and takes up the scheme. And so on.

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Next on Dateline: “Fedoras that Kill!”

There’s not even an “arc” of corruption here: it’s just in-your-face in the most banal way possible. Because every doctor has a couple of guns just lying around and is willing, in a moment, to risk his entire career by committing murder and attempting to steal a fortune. Because it’s A BORING FRICKIN’ TOWN, dammit!

If I’ve cited the Coens, let’s throw in David Lynch too: not so much for the masked predator with a Freddy Krueger glove, but an adult Darla Hood from “The Little Rascals.” This sounds mean, but she is one weird, surreal-looking young woman—with the too-large round head of the child star bobbling on a much smaller body and doll-like eyes. When her character wonders what it is like to be dead, I got the Lynch-bumps across my skin.

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stare into the haunted eyes of former “Little Rascal” Darla Hood…if you DARE!

Soon, Cornelia, her “assistant” Lizzie, Miss Hood, and the pretty young wife of the framed cashier are stalked in the house—their relentless pursuer a tall, masked, fedora-wearing man dressed all in black who has a nasty habit of tearing out throats with his claw-hand.

Virtually every man, other than that poor schmuck in jail, is a suspect: Price’s doctor, the police detective, and the chauffeur/butler with the weird accent. Coincidentally enough, they are all tall and own fedoras.

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“Death Wears A Fedora”

This brings me to another interesting thing about The Bat that has stayed in my brain past these two viewings, several years apart. Cornelia and Lizzie seem “coded” as lesbians.

Back in the 50s, there was no way to actually have a real homosexual character in film, other than to “code” them. These characters were often villains or victims (see Dracula’s Daughter). But in The Bat, Cornelia seems very much her own person, successful, in charge, somewhat likable, and devoid of any male companionship whatsoever. Her and Lizzie share a bedroom and spend a good deal of the film in pretty low-cut (at least for the time) nightgowns; they’re both middle-aged, but there’s a certain sensuality about it, and an easy familiarity between the two of them that seems more like a couple than a boss/assistant relationship.

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Cornelia and Lizzie

As if to drive home the point that men are not for Lizzie, at one point she says that there could be no way she would ever be pregnant, because a guy would never be “near” her. Which is a weird segue to everything that’s happening in the plot. By the third act, Cornelia has three women around her, running around in their nightgowns—all of them fleeing this sinister male figure in this world where all men are either impotent or evil. And at the end of the picture, the author has seemingly hired the aforementioned young wife as yet another “assistant.”

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One of a number of publicity stills for this film featuring Price and Moorehead that seem to have precious little to do with the actual plot.

(Segue: it has long been debated in Hollywood circles whether the twice-married Agnes Moorehead was herself a lesbian or bisexual. Many of the rumors for this can be sourced back to notorious Tinsel Town gossip—and Moorehead’s Bewitched co-star—Paul Lynde. Those close to her, including actress Debbie Reynolds and longtime friend/producer Paul Gregory, say she wasn’t; that instead the rumors were started by a malicious ex-husband. These issues of sexuality were fraught with so much shame and possible Hollywood blacklisting back then that perhaps the real answer is lost to Time.)

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Agnes Moorehead hams it up to the hilt in the TV series “Betwitched”

It is at this point that I cannot help but turn back to the originator of the story, Mary Roberts Rinehart—a prolific mystery writer (like Cornelia Van Gorder) known as the “American Agatha Christie” in her prime. Some of her other works, such as 1940’s The Great Mistake, do seem to contain friendships between women that may or may not have lesbian overtones to them. Far more interesting, and apropos to the plot of The Bat, is that in 1947 at the age of 71 widower Rinehart was almost stabbed to death by her chef in a most gruesome fashion.

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First, Blas Reyes, the disgruntled chef, tried to shoot her in her library. But the pistol was too old, and wouldn’t fire. So he ran to the kitchen and grabbed a carving knife. Rinehart’s chauffeur received defensive stab wounds as he struggled to restrain the enraged Reyes from trying to murder her. The chef hung himself in his jail cell the following night. A year later, a sweeping fire would destroy more than 200 houses in the area, including Rinehart’s.

At the time she was almost killed, Rinehart planned a ground-breaking interview with Ladies Home Journal about her fight with breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy in the mid-Thirties—medical topics that were rarely addressed in the media in that era.

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Mary Roberts Rinehart

So while The Bat was released one year after Rinehart’s death, it’s easy to see some of the author in Moorehead’s confident and plucky portrayal. And the trigger-happy and blade-fingered male characters seem to make more sense.

In closing, The Bat is certainly not one the best movies of the Fifties or anything like that (though maybe it’s the “Citizen Kane” of films containing potentially rabid bats). But it has some nice idiosyncratic bits throughout, plus a crazy-man-crazy far-out score by Alvino Ray. As I said, you can pretty much find this public domain flick anywhere—just don’t expect (regardless of the publicity photos and VHS/DVD box) a meaty Vincent Price starrer because he isn’t in it for that long.

Though sometimes, just a little Vincent is enough!

And here’s the entire movie, just in case you’re interested:

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