Every once in a while, even busy supporting players have to break out of their ruts, and Agnes Moorehead was no exception. In 1959 she got top billing in The Bat, opposite Vincent Price. A mildly suspenseful and slightly campy film, The Bat is an entertaining example of what Agnes could do with a lead role.
Director and screenwriter Crane Wilbur adapted The Bat from a successful 1920s play and film by Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood. It’s about a best-selling mystery novelist, Cornelia Van Gorder, who rents a house in the town of Zenith for the summer. Before long, she finds herself embroiled in her own real-life thriller: The house she rented not only has a sordid and deadly past, but there’s a faceless character named The Bat on the loose, who rips his victims’ throats apart when he kills them. Lovely. Thickening the plot even further, the local bank is missing about a million dollars, plus three-hundred thousand in bonds and securities. That’s awkward.
John Fleming, the bank president (and the man who owns the house Miss Cornelia rented, natch), is on vacation at a cabin in the mountains with his physician, Dr. Malcolm Wells, played by Vincent Price. The two are hanging out after dinner when Mr. Fleming casually mentions that he embezzled a million dollars from the bank and is planning to hide it in his family crypt. He then offers to go halvsies with Dr. Wells if he’ll help Mr. Fleming fake his own death and frame Vic Bailey, the bank vice president, for it. The good(!) doctor has other ideas, though, and shoots Mr. Fleming.
Meanwhile, back at the mansion, Miss Cornelia finds that all of her household staff except for Lizzie, the maid, and Warner, the chauffeur, refuse to stay with her because of the house’s rather scary past. She tries to slough it off, but she and Lizzie are as jumpy as cats at a water balloon fight. A door bangs in the wind, a suit of armor falls down the stairs, and a tapestry rustles. Oh, and a black-gloved hand with claws reaches in the door and almost grabs Miss Cornelia. Lizzie puts the chain latch on the door, but will that stop a wily character like The Bat? Nope, not even close. Miss Cornelia ends up letting Lizzie sleep on the couch in her room because there’s safety in numbers. Sometimes, anyway.
At least The Bat starts out giving fair warning before striking. With a bat that bears a remarkable resemblance to the one used in the 1931 version of Dracula, might I add, except for the wingspan. Flies just about as well, too. In one scene, it circles in a corner, clearly suspended from a wire, and then supposedly bites Lizzie after obviously having been tossed at her by a crew member. Being bitten by a bat is no joke, but I had to laugh my head off at that little interlude. I couldn’t help it–the bat looked about as real as the shark in Jaws.
Although Mr. Fleming has been taken out by Dr. Wells, his plan to blame young Vic Bailey goes off without a hitch, and Mr. Bailey goes to jail awaiting trial. Miss Cornelia wants to get to know his wife Dale better, so she invites her to stay at the Fleming house for the weekend. She also invites a young woman named Judy, played charmingly by Darla Hood. Yes, as in Darla from Our Gang. She even has her own Alfalfa (sans cowlick, of course)–Mark Fleming, Miss Cornelia’s realtor and the only heir of his uncle, John Fleming. Inevitably, the weekend is anything but quiet, as The Bat is still lurking about and their supposed protection, police chief Lieutenant Anderson, is never around when the ladies need him.
Our heroine, Miss Cornelia, is on one hand terrified for her life and for those around her, but on the other, she’s itching to catch The Bat herself and find the missing money. For a mystery writer to be catapulted into her own saga is a dream come true, and she speculates and follows clues with obvious relish. She also sees a new book coming out of her predicament, and it just so happens that Mrs. Bailey was a secretary and knows shorthand.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, since it is a mystery and therefore consists of a series of gotchas. The doctor could be The Bat…or the chauffeur…or the nephew…or…someone else? But who? And where did that million dollars go? Will anyone make it out of the Fleming mansion alive?
Agnes’s performance in The Bat is pitch perfect. Her Miss Cornelia is a combination of queen and big sister–unpretentious, with a lot of humor, but also with a slight twist of diva. This is no simple damsel in distress, either. Miss Cornelia likes realism in her books, which is why she makes sure to carry a gun after the first encounter with The Bat. “I don’t write about things I’m unfamiliar with,” she tells Dr. Wells.
Speaking of familiarity, it helps that Mary Roberts Reinhart is best remembered for her mystery novels, so this was a genre she knew well. A mystery writer writing about a mystery writer who gets caught up in her own mystery. Nah, that’s not navel-gazing. At least she didn’t insert herself into The Bat like Garrison Keillor did in Pilgrims: A Lake Wobegon Romance.
But I digress.
The Bat is a very watchable movie. There are touches of hokeyness and predictability, but it’s still fun. Ms. Moorehead distinguishes herself in her rare-for-her lead role, leaving yet more might-have-beens hanging in the air.
Thanks, Crystal, for hosting the Agnes Moorehead Blogathon and for inviting me to participate–it was a blast! We’ll have to do it again sometime. Thanks, all, for reading, and for more on Agnes, stop by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.