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Roland West

Some common subjects in Roland West movies:

Architecture:

Film techniques: Characters:

West, Expressionism and Film Noir

Roland West directed 14 films from 1916 to 1931. West's films are often crime thrillers that take place at night and which are visually influenced by German Expressionism. This is exactly the same combination of conditions that gave rise to film noir in the 1940's. So it is hard not to see West as a filmmaker who work is parallel at least to film noir.

However, there are obvious differences as well. There is little of the obsession and alienation that Alain Silver has noted as defining film noir. West's films tend not to have a view point character or characters through whose eyes most of the action is seen, unlike the great majority of noirs. Instead, West's movies have an omniscient narrating camera, which shows us what events it wants. In this they resemble the whodunits that have always been a completely separate tradition from film noir. West's films also resemble whodunits, in that information is often kept from the audience about the guilt or innocence of the characters till the end.


The Monster

The Monster (1925) is a silent film adaptation of Crane Wilbur's stage play. It is about characters trapped in a spooky house, a genre that was popular in the 1920's. Like other works of its school, it mixes comedy and horror, and has no supernatural elements. West's version is a delightful expression of his personal talents. We are completely in Roland West Land in this movie. The film has a dream like quality.

Secret Passage and Laundry Chutes

As in The Bat, there are a number of scenes dealing with narrow vertical passages within the house. One is a secret tunnel, leading from outside the house, down which Johnny falls and lands on the inside parlor's couch. This is his introduction to the house. This recalls the secret passage in The Bat, which is also a long, narrow, hidden passageway. Both of these secret passageways occur near the start of their respective films, both startle their audiences, and both involve an introductory entrance to the house. Both passages are at a sharp, steep, not quite vertical angle. Their is something Freudian about these passageways. They recall birth, and leaving the womb through a narrow passage. However, they work in reverse. People do not use them to leave a house; they use them to enter. So it is like a birth in reverse, or return to the womb.

There is a second set of vertical chambers later on in the film. This is the dumb waiter, which the hero uses to get onto the roof. Dumb waiters always fascinated me. As soon as I saw it, I hoped the hero would take a ride in it, and I was not disappointed. All sorts of writers in the 1920's used them. One of Agatha Christie's best short stories, "The Third Floor Flat" (1929), centers on a dumb waiter. Unlike the secret passage, the dumb waiter shaft is strictly, purely vertical. In this it resembles the laundry chute of The Bat. Also like the laundry chute, it is not a secret passage way; rather it is a normal architectural feature of the house, that has been adapted for use in the suspense plot. These two features are completely separate in The Monster; but in The Bat the secret passageway and the laundry chute join up.

People fall down vertical passageways and land unhurt on something soft on the bottom in both films: in The Monster this is the secret passageway, with the couch to break the fall; whereas in The Bat it is the chute, with the laundry basket filled with clothes at the bottom. These free falling passages are especially interesting and gripping. They seem to recall the falling and flying imagery we see in our dreams. They are emotional high points of both movies.

Links to Silent Comedy

The Monster has ties to the world of silent comedy. The falling sequences recall the acrobatic comedy of Buster Keaton. So does the best sequence of The Monster, the attempted escape from the roof. This recalls Harold Lloyd's high building comedy scenes, with their mix of suspense and laughs. It also anticipates Chaplin's aerial tight rope scenes in The Circus (1928). One would think that this sequence would be a standard anthology piece in histories of film. However, it seems to be little known. I am not going to spoil the reader's pleasure by trying to describe it. It does have an absurd quality, in addition to its suspense. It too recalls the strange events that take place during dreams. The sequence is logical, but not plausible: the same combination that often occurs in dreams. The way that the characters intricately interact in these sequences, often in coincidental ways, also recalls silent comedy: see all the character encounters in Keaton's Neighbors (1920), for instance.

Roofs

West loved rooftop scenes. Several others occur in The Bat and The Bat Whispers. West liked to show characters walking along peaks of roofs. The sequences would often be shot from slightly below, to emphasize the high level at which the characters were operating. As the viewer cranes up to see them, the effect of their being on a high roof top is enhanced. These scenes often have a pure geometric quality, like much of West. We see the roof as a pure geometric construction, with maybe a rectilinear chimney as the only other addition.

High Angles

The Monster has several shots looking down from a balcony at the main group of characters below. These are Point of View shots, showing what Lon Chaney is seeing from the balcony. There are several later shots in The Bat which similarly show the characters from above. These high angle shots are strikingly composed.

Shadows projected on walls

The Monster has several scenes of shadows being projected on walls. Some of these are on wall areas high above the characters, who watch them as if they were seeing a stage show. This anticipates the wall projection scenes to come in The Bat.

Characters

There are also some character similarity between The Monster and The Bat. Both films have two detectives, one a hick from a small town, who is played strictly for laughs, the other a "great detective" from the big city, who is an authoritative older man, well dressed, serious, and not entirely sympathetic, often times being bullying or condescending to the characters. Neither of these men have the central role here they have in The Bat. Both films also have a group of mainly sympathetic characters wandering around in the spooky mansion. This group serves as the collective "hero" of the films. There is no one central protagonist in either work.

The Monster has some daytime scenes towards its beginning. These are so rare in West's films that they have a startling quality. They are mainly scenes of comic relief. They are much less gracefully filmed than the rest of the movie, with much awkward cutting back and forth between long and medium shots. They do not have a bright sunlit quality, and they lead directly to the nocturnal West world with which we are familiar.


The Bat

The Bat (1926) is a silent film adaptation of the 1920 mystery stage play by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. The play was a huge hit on Broadway. West made this silent film; later he made a talkie adaptation, The Bat Whispers (1930). West filmed at night. Both Bat films take place nearly entirely after dark, so the films fit in with this production approach.

Adapting the Play

The film version of The Bat divides into two unequal sections. The early scenes are largely add-ons to the original play, expanded out for the film.

The early scenes of the film remind one of Louis Feuillade, with a masked criminal, attacks on the rich, and the criminal escaping over roof tops: all part of the Feuillade tradition. The scene where the millionaire is lured to the window, then attacked when he puts his head outside it, is pure Feuillade. Countless scenes like it occur in Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915 -1916).

The second and remaining part of the film takes place entirely inside the Fleming mansion, and are an adaptation of the play. They include the bulk of the film. These scenes are static and stagy. Roland West shows guts by making a silent film of a stage play, but dramatically speaking, the over all effect falls flat. Rinehart's original work shows tremendous story telling power. All of this is lost in the film adaptation. The logical plotting of the original is also obscured, too. The silent version is hard to follow, and if I had not read the original I suspect that I would often be confused. West often seems more interested in creepy effects and comic relief than in the plot, anyway. He is striving for a "Cat and the Canary" approach.

Early Scenes: An Artificial, Geometric World

The opening scenes take place in a wide variety of locales, both indoors and out. However, these "outside" scenes plainly take place on studio sets. The whole film is as studio bound as a film of Murnau. Everything looks completely, deliberately artificial. One is entirely inside a toy world. It is not believable, but it is interesting. This world seems far more geometric than our own. Both the sets, and West's filming of them, emphasizes this abstract geometric quality. At times, the film becomes almost as deliberately artificial as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

One of the least naturalistic scenes in The Bat, and in all of narrative film history, occurs in the early sections. It shows a man ascending an inner staircase in the house. The staircase is shown in cross section view, so we have stairs rising diagonally across the screen between two black diagonal lines. It is like a diagram, not a naturalistic shot. It is very striking and imaginative, and I find it hard to compare it with anything else in film. Such diagrammatic shots would later be fairly common in comic books, but they have rarely been used in film. West shows the man entering the staircase at the lower left, and the shot is sustained till he has climbed all the way to the upper right. This sort of sustained shot, showing a character complete a movement, also reminds one of Feuillade: for example, the shot of the villain climbing off the roof and down the building, at the end of Chapter 1 of Les Vampires.

An early scene in the film, showing a bank interior through a skylight, recalls a similar overhead view of an office at the start of Fritz Lang's The Spiders Part II: The Diamond Ship (1920). Set design William Cameron Menzies used other overhead window shots in Bulldog Drummond (1929), so this is also part of his personal repertoire of set design. Both the Lang and the West films make elaborate geometric designs out of all the rectilinear office cubes down below.

The Later Scenes: Geometry and Filming Technique

What never falters through the bulk of the film is West's interest in geometric style. Shot after shot creates some new geometric pattern on screen. Hence, the film might not appeal to story oriented audiences, but specialists in mise-en-scène will always have an interest in it.

This film has spectacular sets by William Cameron Menzies. At times, it is hard to say how much of the visual style of the film is West, and how much Menzies. However, West shoots the sets in a way which is consistent with his personal traditions.

The sets are often filmed frontally.

The emphasis is on highly formal geometric patterns being created, with the actors and the set blending into one geometric design. West stresses rectangles, diagonals, and straight lines. There are few curves anywhere in the film. Shots are only occasionally to one side, so that one gets genuine rectangles, not trapezoids. Diagonals tend to go upwards from the lower left to the upper right. Rinehart and Hopwood specified that their stairs were constructed in such a fashion, so West partly inherited this from the play.

The sets are full of truly gigantic staircases. West shoots these in long shots, so one sees the staircase as a whole, as part of the architecture of the set. This is very different from the later approach of film nor, which typically shoots the staircase up close, as part of a baroque geometric pattern. The huge, multi-story sets remind one of the later Italian villa of Mitchell Leisen's Death Takes a Holiday (1934).

The shot of the Bat at the window, and his paper-mache mask, anticipates the even more avant-garde shot in Alibi of the man seen through the opaque glass door.

The Bat: a precursor to Batman

The most important circles in the film occur when the image of the Bat is projected on the walls of the room. This scene is right in Rinehart's play, so it was not invented by West. However, he does it to a fare thee well in the film. The image is projected on the walls high above the characters. So for once, all this upper space in a West film is put to some structural use. The image moves along the wall, slowly and surely, just as in the play's instructions. It is a scene of tremendous drama. It seems to have some underlying emotional significance. It is like a message from the unconscious, or Nature, or a revelation of some sort.

Many comic book historians think that this scene is the origin of the Bat-Signal in Batman comic books. Like the Bat-Signal, we have a projected, circular beam, with the image of a bat in its center.

The bat's head costume in this film might also have inspired Batman's. In the stage play, The Bat just dressed in street clothes; presumably he committed his crimes while wrapped in the conventional dark clothes used by burglars. In West's film version, he is wearing a grotesque bat's head, and is a costumed character. This makes no sense in the world of Rinehart's play: the Bat is supposed to be a great criminal, a master mind, and it is hard to see why he would do such a thing in any practical terms. However, it does produce a creepy effect on film.

The early scenes in the film, with the villain challenging the police to prevent a midnight robbery, seem to have inspired the plot of the first Joker story as well, Bill Finger's "Batman vs. The Joker" (Batman #1, Spring 1940).

There is much bat imagery in this film, most of which is missing in West's sound film remake, The Bat Whispers. This includes the opening image of a bat, with glowing eyes; the bat costume worn by the bad guy; the Bat-Signal like scene; three exterior night shots throughout the film with a bat flying around in the sky; the bat fastened to the window; and the bat shaped notes left by the criminal. All of this has been completely downplayed in the remake.

Characterization

West is very different from most silent film directors, in that The Bat has no major love scenes, or any scenes in which the characters emote. There is a brief kiss between the niece and the cashier/gardener early in the film, but it is not prolonged. Virtually all the silent films I have seen linger long and hard on the actors' faces, building up their emotions and characterizations. Not West. Such potentially interesting characters as the spinster, the detective and the Unknown get no special characterization here. West seems coming out of a completely separate dramatic tradition from most of silent film.

Nor are his characters especially glamorized. The niece is not a figure of glamour, and her boyfriend is down right nerdish. The detective wears a good suit, but this mainly seems to serve as a contrast to the hayseed characters he encounters. This too is unusual in silent film.


Alibi

Adaptation of a Gangster Play

West was an early specialist in mystery thrillers, often based on plays. Alibi (1929) is an early talkie film based on a "police versus crooks" stage melodrama called Nightstick (1927), by John Wray, J. C. Nugent, Elliott Nugent and Elaine Sterne Carrington. The film was apparently also known sometimes as Nightstick, as well. It in fact begins with a disconnected shot of a hand twirling a police nightstick against a wall. The police use their nightsticks to tap out messages to each other, during the central scene in the film. In addition, much of the film centers on the police trying to control criminals; this is what nightsticks are used for, and the metaphor of a nightstick might be used to describe this.

Alibi (1929) is early in the cycle of gangster pictures. It is already two years after Sternberg's Underworld (1927). However, Alibi is a year before Mervyn Le Roy's Little Caesar (1930), a film that some people persevere in treating as the start of the gangland cycle.

The play Nightstick (1927) followed in the wake of the play Broadway (1926), by Philip Dunning and George Abbott. Broadway was a huge commercial and critical success in 1926, and did much to popularize the world of gangsters and speakeasies in entertainment media. There were also such prose works as the magazine version of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1927). So neither the play nor the film Alibi are pioneers.

Two-Faced Men

As in West's The Bat (1926) there is a duel in the film between the police and the crooks, and both are given equal weight. The film lacks a clear center, any morally heroic person with whom the audience can identify. Instead, both the crooks and the cops are depicted as terrible people. The police are unfeeling brutes here, ready to do anything to force confessions from suspects or to frame criminals. The treatment by the policeman father of his daughter is so dictatorial that the audience starts rooting during these scenes for the crooks. The crooks are initially shown as charming and perhaps largely innocent denizens of gangland. However, as the film progresses the crooks are revealed to be snarling, mistreaters of women, cowardly and rotten to the core. In fact, we become a bit more sympathetic to the police, and their use of extreme tactics to keep these hoodlums in line.

West preferred stories about men who were engaged in elaborate undercover assignments, who lead double lives. Two-faced characters abound in The Bat, Alibi and Corsair, and no one is ever who they seem. Most men are on both sides of the law, playing roles that are both "good" and "evil". Audience members will often be genuinely confused about these characters' true orientation. I sat through the first half of Alibi convinced that Chester Morris was an injured innocent, only to see him revealed as the crook the police were claiming him to be. I say "men" here, because it is only West's male characters who have this Janus like quality. The women seem to be steadfast and sincere. They usually are gutsy, and far more direct than any of the male characters. We are a long way from the femme fatales of film noir, where the men are direct and the females are duplicitous. In West, it is just the other way around. Even when they are honest, it is not clear than West's men are "good", in the full moral sense. His police are downright obnoxious, forceful in their near brutality and take charge attitude. The deviousness of most of West's males is extraordinary. These men leading double lives tend to be extremely well dressed. It is not the lower class types like the country detective in The Bat who are lying - this rube is as honest and straightforward as the women. No, the liars tend to be in slick suits, and are dressed up to the max. There is perhaps a Feuillade influence here: his bad guys (and gals) tended to have numerous identities to aid them in their schemes. However, it is not only villains in West who have two lives: it is also policemen who are doing undercover work.

Even at the end of the film, it is not clear how to evaluate the morals of these men. The villains can have charm, while the undercover police can be chilling in their behavior. This leaves the audiences puzzling at the end. The puzzling is pleasant - something to think about after the movie is over. There is also a feeling that the characters have mysterious depth. I do not feel I know all about Chester Morris at the end of Alibi. He probably has motivations and personality aspects that we can only dimly glimpse. This sort of characterization is rare in the cinema. One suspects that West got away with this, in that he was his own producer - he could presumably do exactly as he liked.

Sound Effects

Alibi was created during the first full year of sound films in Hollywood. It alternated scenes that are dialogueless with passages of talk. The "silent" scenes are far superior, and show a fluid storytelling that that dialogue scenes do not. The "silent" scenes often have creative sound effects. West was clearly trying to use the medium of sound in ingenious ways. He sometimes overdoes it, but one has to respect his imagination here. The robbery scene, where the police tap their nightsticks to summon other policemen, is especially creative.

There are also numerous musical numbers. They all involve chorus girls entertaining in night clubs and theaters - typical mood enhancers creating the feel of an underworld milieu. Dozens of musicals were created in 1929 - they were a craze of the early sound period. Alibi has so many musical numbers that it can be classified as a film musical itself.

Camera Technique: Geometry on Screen

Some of the sets in Alibi are squares: the policeman's living room, the dance hall. West often shoots these from one corner, exactly on a 45 degree angle. This gives a diamond like effect. Such head on shooting is relatively rare in films. It emphasizes the geometric quality of the sets. The viewer is plunged into a world of pure geometry. Later on, West will change the angle in the dance hall so that the camera is perfectly parallel to one wall. This also produces an effect of exact geometry. The stage show seen by the crooks is also shown at a 45 degree angle; it too has a striking geometric visual quality.

The interrogation of the cheap crook at the police station is also shot in a geometric style. West keeps shooting with his camera exactly parallel to walls of the police station. At the high point of the interrogation, the camera set up frequently changes. First we see a shot parallel to one wall, then to a different wall, then to a third. The whole effect is remarkably striking. It is not naturalistic. The audience always seems to have wandered into a dream world, one in which they are exploring a world of pure geometry on screen.

Empty Space, Tracks Down Corridors, German Expressionism

West likes to keep large areas of space empty on screen. A lone person will sometimes be standing at one side of a large set, one with very high walls stretching far above him, and with plenty of open space in the foreground before him. The effect is of a person lost and dominated within an imposing room. The mood this conveys is related to the plots of these films: the characters are often caught up in terrifying melodramas which also dominate and control their lives. The individual person looks tiny and powerless in these positions. Such scenes convey a sense of terror.

There are many corridors in this film down which the camera moves. These are often first person, moving camera Point of View shots, with which we are familiar in Murnau. Also Murnau like: the sense of being in a an artificially constructed world in the studio. And the sense of fate dominating the characters and their lives. The corridor shots begin during the opening prison sequences of the film. They continue later in both the night club and the theater sequences. Although these later venues are glittery underworld type spots, the corridors suggest that they too are prisons of sort. The characters are in an hermetically sealed world from which there is no escape.

Similarities to Fritz Lang

There are Fritz Lang like touches in the film as well: There is also a Lang like interest in modern communication devices: All of these scenes reveal a fascination both with police procedure, and with modern methods of mass communication and mass organization: all Lang subjects.

The Lang films which Alibi resembles most are not any of Lang's films of the 1920's which preceded it. Instead Alibi anticipates such Lang police melodramas of the 1930's as M (1931) and Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). It is unclear whether West's film influenced Lang's pictures directly, or whether Alibi is a simply a representative of a large group of police thrillers which preceded M, and on whose techniques Lang drew. There is an especial sense of realism to the film, a sense that it looks at a grim, somewhat sleazy world in which police and crooks duel, that anticipates the unglamorous world of Lang's early 1930's pictures.

Art Deco

Alibi (1929) was created during the height of the Art Deco craze in Hollywood. Some of the sets, especially at the crook's penthouse apartment at the end of the film, seem influenced by Art Deco. However, the standards of Deco style have been greatly transmuted in these sets.


The Bat Whispers

A Remake of The Bat

The Bat Whispers (1930) is a sound remake of West's earlier silent film, The Bat (1926). In terms of script, the two films are very similar, with more or less the same incidents and events in the same order. Even dialogue that was delivered in titles in the first film, is now spoken by the characters. Visually, the two productions are utterly distinct. The Bat Whispers is a complete visual rethinking of the earlier film. West seems to have started afresh, and made an entirely new and different movie out of the same material. The Bat Whispers has a new cinematographer, Ray June, and set designer, Paul Rowe Crowley. Their work is completely different from their predecessors, which helps explain some of the visual differences between the two films. Ray June will photograph all three of West's sound films.

The Bat Whispers is much easier to understand than the silent original. Partly this is simply due to the spoken dialogue. The remake simply has more exposition than could be conveyed by title cards in the original, and hence is much clearer. However, this is not the only explanation. The whole business about the hidden room is handled much better here than in the first film.

The Bat Whispers: NOT a precursor to Batman

The video print is of the wide screen version. This print is beautifully restored, with wonderfully clear photography and sound. It does not have the scene where the bat image is projected on the walls of the house. Either it was not included by West in the remake, or this print is missing footage. I suspect the former, but do not know for sure. If this scene is only in the silent film, it means that the Batman comic book was influenced by the silent film, and definitely not by the sound one. There is much less actual bat imagery in the second film, in general.

The Sets: More Naturalistic

The new production is much more naturalistic than the old one. The sets now look like an ordinary home. They lack the huge scale and geometric abstraction of Menzies' original.

One can contrast the cellar here, full of realistic bric a brac, with Menzies' geometric stylization in the silent film. That cellar, with its free floating low staircase and central shaft for the laundry, looked like something out of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926) or Jacob Protazanov's Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). The stylization of the silent is not necessarily a bad thing. I've seen plenty of ordinary cellars in my day, but I've never seen anything that looks exactly like the avant-garde one in The Bat. Seeing it is a new visual experience, and a rewarding one. One might also note that the chute in the sound film is actually full of laundry at its base, whereas the silent film's abstract geometrical shaft has nothing so concrete or ordinary in it. This laundry does enable some spectacular scenes in the remake, of people falling through the shaft, then landing unhurt in the laundry pile at the bottom.

The staircase leading out of the shaft is a realistic staircase in the remake, whereas it was the visually unique diagrammatic staircase in the silent. The realistic staircase is less visually innovative. However, it is more easily understood in terms of actual architecture. I actually understand what West is intending to convey about the shaft, the staircase and the rest of the mansion now, whereas my comprehension of the original was fuzzy. Perhaps I should explain: I have owned a videotape of the silent for many years, but have just now purchased (9-26-1999) a tape of the sound remake. In many cases, the remake is clarifying my knowledge of the much obscurer silent original.

One often sees from the doorway of one room, into another. West liked this sort of staging. There can be considerable depth of field here.

The film is full of windows, showing trees and often lightening outside. These shots look very non-naturalistic. One is tempted to ascribe this simply to the date. But if one compares this with John Ford's Air Mail (1933), and its technically virtuosic window scenes, one has to conclude that the stylization in The Bat Whispers must be to some degree a matter of choice. Perhaps an independent producer like West had access to cheaper, less sophisticated technology. Or perhaps West was happy with the stylized look of the film. This is a horror movie, after all, a genre that often looked less realistic than other kinds of film.

More Naturalistic Costumes

The Bat is no longer wearing his grotesque face mask. Instead, he seems to be dressed in common burglar clothes. A different sort of figure of style is used: when he stretches out his arms, he makes a bat-shaped shadow on the walls. This visually associates his character with a bat, without violating the new naturalism of the production. The film implies that his cape, trailing arm covers, etc. just happen to make a bat shadow.

The Actors and Characterization

Chester Morris appeared in many adaptations of detective literature. In addition to his role as Detective Anderson here, he was Jack Boyle's thief hero Boston Blackie in a long series of films (1941 - 1949). He played Geoffrey Homes' series detective Humphrey Campbell in No Hands on the Clock (novel: 1939; film: 1941), and was policeman Max Ritter in a TV adaptation of Lawrence G. Blochman's Dr. Coffee stories, Diagnosis: Unknown (1960). His father, actor William Morris, had played the title role in Maurice Tourneur's film Monsieur Lecoq (1915), an adaptation of the famed detective novel by Gaboriau.

Chester Morris has the detective's role in The Bat Whispers. It has been built up for him: it is now more glamorous than in the silent. However, it is an odd sort of star part. For one thing, his character is missing from the screen during much of the action. For another, he plays it with a snarling abrasiveness that must have turned more than a few viewers off. This is a dramatically appropriate way to play the role, but most leading men try to be much more charming. He gave a similarly ambiguous performance as the mobster in Alibi. Clearly West had unusual ideas about the behavior of lead actors. Also, Morris seems to be artificially aged for this role. His temples seem to be grayed, and he is dressed in a formal manner in a sharp suit suggesting maturity and a Man of Distinction. His detective is supposed to be an authority figure, not a juvenile, and Morris seems to be playing a character older than himself, and older than his mobster in Alibi. This too is an unusual approach for a leading man. Morris seems to have thrown himself into these acting challenges with gusto.

In the later sections of the film, Morris will often be shot with the menacing horror film lighting usually reserved for monsters and mad scientists. This too is very unusual. It gives his face an utterly strange appearance, just as it was intended. He is frequently threatening the other characters, and it makes him seem as spooky as anything.

Another odd twist: the young bank clerk here disguises himself by adding a pair of glasses he doesn't need; in the silent his character removed the glasses he did need as a disguise. This means that the character now spends more screen time with his glasses off than on, while the reverse was true of the silent. This is a move towards more conventional ideas of glamour. There is still very little glamour or romance between the two juveniles.

Model Shots and Forward Tracking

The Bat Whispers is full of tracking shots over scale models. These shots tend to be forward straight ahead, at high speeds, and positively propulsive. They are often used to introduce scenes. One, a tracking shot that plunges straight down the surface of a skyscraper, is especially thrilling. It is echoed a scene later by a track up the front of Bell's apartment building, and through his window. West has clearly been studying German Expressionist films, such as Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), with their aerial tracking shots, and trying for his own spectacular moving images.

West's model shots are often joined to other tracking shots, showing the actual full sized sets and the actors. The joins are not as smooth as one would have liked. West would probably have loved today's computer graphics, which would have given him a chance to do even more elaborate shots of this type, and better joins between real and scale material.

Another early film full of scale models: Alfred Hitchcock's Number Seventeen (1932). Virtually the whole second half of this short film consists of model shots. Hitchcock, like West, includes toy models of cars moving around on the miniature sets. Both West and Hitchcock were non-German directors heavily influenced by German Expressionist films. The possibility that West's films directly influenced Hitchcock might also be taken into account. Hitchcock was always deeply impressed with American films technically, and strove to keep up with them in England. The huge staircases in Number Seventeen also might recall those in The Bat, at least in size.

There are other forward tracks in The Bat Whispers, involving large scale sets and actors. These tracks are similar in style to those involving models:

The forward tracking shots in The Bat Whispers, remind one of the forward tracking shots in Alibi.

Lateral Tracks

West also uses lateral tracks. Many of the scenes in the living room and hall are filmed frontally, with a static camera. The camera is anchored to massive compositions within the room. At one key point, the camera moves laterally, following Detective Anderson. The effect is startling. It is as if the Earth shifted. One has the effect of a vast machine in motion. Perhaps this is also an artifact of the 65 mm Magnifilm process.

Elevated Angles - and Lost Characters

Nearly all the shots in the house are face on, from near eye level or a bit lower. But in two spooky scenes, West shoots from an elevated angle, showing the entire living room from high up. This emphasizes how lost the characters are in the huge mansion, during these fake "supernatural" scenes. West's camera rises and moves during these events.

Overhead Shots

West favors steep overhead shots. These are nearly straight downward, with just a slight angle from the vertical. These are rarely the true verticals one sees in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), instead they are usually slightly angled, and represent a Point of View of someone looking down. In addition to the early skyscraper scenes, there are several shots of the lawn outside the mansion, taken from the point of view of the roof or upper story window. These tend to have people clustered around a point near the lower right hand corner of the screen. One shot has a lamppost in this area, with police radiating in straight lines from this point. The police group and regroup; their motions make intricate, carefully choreographed dances from above.

During one key scene in the attic, West shoots the Bat setting up electrical equipment from a true vertical angle. The camera also tracks along with the Bat overhead. These shots are a spectacular figure of style.

Staging

West allows his characters to move around in the sets. They are not frozen into static compositions, but move from place to place. These movements often seem to be along well defined axes. Characters will move along a wall, up a staircase, or through a door. In the office at the beginning of the film, there are paths laid down on the floor, along which Mr. Bell walks. These paths are parallel to the walls of the room. So are most of the other paths the characters follow. Their motions are geometric. They follow and align themselves with the geometry of the rooms.

West almost never uses the over the shoulder, back and forth cutting often used for confrontation scenes in many Hollywood pictures. For that matter, there are rarely any one on one confrontations between the characters.

Frontal Shots

The preferred shot for the indoor scenes is an elaborate long view. This view shows a group of actors, framed against the background of the set. West's favorite angle is frontal, with the camera dead on against the back wall of the set. The picture plane will be parallel to the rear wall of the set. Such shots make up perhaps half of the film.

West varies his distance to the back wall considerably in these shots. Sometimes he is fairly close to the wall, perhaps just showing two people. At other times, he is fairly far, and includes a whole group of actors.

Equally important to West are the elements of the sets included in these shots. Especially key: the two staircases, and the French window doors leading from the living room to the garden. These doors are virtually another character in the film. They play a huge role in the plot. They have a separate landing stage in front of them, an elevated platform on which their own mini-drama can be enacted. This platform also has a set of small steps leading down to the main living room. Even when nothing is happening on them, West often includes these doors and their stage as part of a shot. They are a reminder of the potential of this door. The door becomes especially associated with the Unknown, that key, mysterious character in the movie.

There is something evocative of the theater is such frontal shots. They echo the point of view of an ideal spectator in the theater. The action is seen as a whole, and from a frontal angle. However, West's camera is also very flexible, constantly changing the scope of these frontal shots to include different backgrounds, depth of field, and so on.

West can also be flexible about the angle of these frontal shots. There are tiny changes off the perpendicular, to emphasize this or that background element. One shot in the dining room has the camera tracking in to the table when Miss Van Gorder and Detective Anderson are seated. The camera tracks slightly to the left as well, to shift the view of the bottom of the stairs a little to the left. This means we can get a slight but distinct side view of the stairs. Directors have always exploited such choices. In Antonioni's L'Avventura (1960), the director shifts his camera to give us views of two different sides of an alley or cross street, down which he is pointing his camera.

Side Angle Shots

West does not always film directly to the front. He also favors side angles, that show the side walls of the set, and the doors to the next room. West often includes such shots whenever the action demands it, such as an entrance or exit of a character through such a door. Structurally, these shots are very similar to the frontal ones. They too are dead on, framing the actors against the walls of the set. West's angles are very varied here. They range from 45 degrees, to an occasional full 90 degrees away from the true frontal angle of the film. They rarely if ever go beyond the 90 degrees.

West almost always includes something parallel to the plane of the camera in these shots, whether it is a grouping of the actors, a single key actor who is being emphasized, or a background part of the set. This makes these shots have a frontal quality of their own. While they vary the frontal views, they are structurally so similar that they do not change the basic style of the film.

Vertical and Diagonal Lines

In both front and side angle shots, we see elaborate verticals and diagonals in the walls of the set, often created by the massive vertical doors and pillars that are everywhere in the sets of this movie.

An 180 degree rule violation

When Chester Morris shows the other detective his credentials, West cuts to a shot that shows the two men from the other side from most of the shots in the room. I believe this violates the 180 degree rule, which otherwise seems to be largely followed in the films.

It is unclear why West does this. The shot has a disturbing quality. West shoots from above, focusing downward on the shiny police badge displayed by Morris. Morris is exercising his authority here, and is unpleasant and fairly rude to the nice, bumbling, comedy relief private eye to whom he is doing it. West is plainly uncomfortable with police and their authority: see Alibi, where this discomfort is one of the principal themes. This scene will also have implications in the later mystery plot. Neither this shot nor the action it contains has an analog in the silent original.

The 180 degree violation has the effect of making this shot seem like a separate scene, one nested with the main scene in the room, but somehow marked out as its own separate world. It looks like something new, which has been inserted into the natural order of things in the room. The scene in the room seems to flow around it, like a rock in a stream. The shot seems counter to the "natural" flow of everything around it. It seems to have its own "180 degree" orientation, separate from the main scene around it. This contrary feel, of something nested within a larger world and opposed to it, helps give the events of the shot a special status.