I'VE BEEN BUYING VIDEOS FROM GREG LUCE'S SINISTER CINEMA SINCE THE MID-1980s AND I HIGHLY RECOMMEND IT. Sinister Cinema has been a high-quality source of unavailable movies from the horror, science fiction, fantasy, and many many other genres so I don't understand why I was surprised when Greg unearthed this lost TV version of the hoary old dark house barnstormer "THE BAT".
I had honestly never even HEARD of this 1960 television production of "THE BAT" aired on the first pilot episode of the DOW HOUR OF GREAT MYSTERIES and God knows where Sinister Cinema unearthed it. The 50+ minute programme views exactly like a live stage production; it is from an original kinescope but the print and sound are way above average for such a thing. The show appears to have been filmed live but doesn't suffer from that awkwardness many "filmed-live" programmes have. And the main reason for that is probably the extremely accomplished cast of actors on display here: Helen Hayes, Jason Robards Jr. and Margaret Hamilton head a really nicely put-together cast including Bethel Leslie (who played Marta Land in 1999's MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE),
Shepperd Strudwick (ALL THE KING'S MEN) and Martin Brooks (best known as Dr. Rudy Wells who surgically implanted the bionics into THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and THE BIONIC WOMAN).
The direction is by veteran TV director Paul Nickell who helmed everything from Playhouse 90, Naked City, Ben Casey, The Donna Reed Show, 77 Sunset Strip and Lassie; Nickell also apparently directed two following episodes of the Dow Hour based on John Dickson Carr's THE BURNING COURT and Wilkie Collins' THE WOMAN IN WHITE. Boy, I'd sure like to see those unearthed one of these days.
The atmosphere is nicely conjured during the course of the programme with lightning storms and frequent power outtages requiring many lighted candles. The rain lashes outside in some scenes like the best old dark house movies. The tone is kept light but not frivolous with Helen Hayes quipping the most bon mots with some sarcastic bite. Unfortunately, the first time we see the costumed fiend "The Bat" at the top of the stairs in full light, his bat leotards are quite laughable and almost derail the show.
Thankfully, that's the clearest shot we get of the Bat; we do see him running about the house but they are more briefly glimpsed and sometimes in a darkened room with lightning flashes to give him an aura of menace. And since it is made perfectly clear beforehand that the Bat is no supernatural creature but just a criminal in a costume, the "bat leotard" incident is not fatally damaging to the show. Helen Hayes, of course, is terrific in her role as Cordelia Van Gorder; if not quite as much fun as Agnes Moorehead was in the same role in the previous year's film version of THE BAT. Margaret Hamilton, best known of course as the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), is suitably hysterical in her comic-relief role as the jittery maid; thankfully she does not go over the top with the hysterics and not once becomes annoying. Jason Robards is Jason Robards; totally reliable and playing it straight as the detective called in to investigate the recent housebreaking by the evil Bat. An oddity is that Joseph N. Welch is the "host" of the Dow Mystery programme. Now Joseph N. Welch is not an actor but notably was cast as the judge in ANATOMY OF A MURDER but in real life he is the man who chastised witch-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy on live television with the line "Have you no sense of decency, sir". Welch became something of a celebrity during this time and that's presumably why he was picked to introduce the programme; something like the same thing happened to Senator Sam Irvin during the Watergate hearing -- thankfully no one asked Welch to make a record of "Bridge Over Troubled Water". Yeah, Sam Irvin DID!
There are numerous versions of the old warhouse Mary Roberts Rinehart play from the silent Roland West version (1926) and the two Roland West sound versions of THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) - West filmed one regular aspect version as well as an experimental "widescreen" version; both of which are available on DVD. Then of course there's the previously mentioned THE BAT (1959) starring Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price which appear one short year before this TV version with Helen Hayes. However, even by the first silent film version, Rinehart's old chestnut of an old dark house play was ALREADY an old-fashioned cliche. So the film record of THE BAT seems to be a continual search to make different versions using the skeleton of the stage play. Do we really need yet another version of THE BAT and why should we bother watching a 1960 made-for-TV programme of it? Well, that's obviously up to the viewer. However, this TV version stands on its own and is well worth watching because it is quite a bit different than all the other versions of THE BAT on film. Also, if for no other reason than it's extreme rarity and relative unknown quality up until this point. Then there's the obvious quality of the programme and the cast which make it practically a must-see for all horror fans and a really nice thing to watch on the way to Halloween. As far as I know, there's only one place to get it and that's by clicking here for a link to take you over to Sinister Cinema.