Roland West | The Monster | The Bat | Alibi | The Bat Whispers
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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 (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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.