The Bat (1959)

Between 1922 and 1960, the play The Bat was filmed at least five times. I have previously written about the 1960 TV version, and in that post I also told a bit about how the story is connected with Batman. Now the turn has come to what is perhaps the most well-known version, the 1959 film The Bat, starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead.

Agnes Moorehead and Lenita Lane in The Bat (1959)

In this version, Moorehead plays a mystery writer who has rented a mansion over the summer, but the place scares her hired staff, and things do not exactly improve when rumours of the masked murderer “The Bat” start to go around. The Bat is soon drawn to the mansion for some reason, and so are several other persons, including Lieutenant Anderson, who tries to capture The Bat, and Dr. Wells (Price), a man with some pretty shady background.

Of all the versions, this is perhaps the one that is furthest removed from the original play. While that helps to give it more cineastic integrity (in terms of not feeling quite so much like a filmed play), it also works to the film’s disadvantage to some extent. The play has a really tight and well worked out plot, and though the film retains the major plot elements, it feels somewhat less intense and dramatic. The horror aspects that have been added do not feel all that terrifying fifty-plus years later.

Still, it is a cozy piece of a mystery, one to cuddle up in front of on a dark and stormy night. In addition, of the three versions available from the Internet Archive, it is most definitely the one with the best sound and image quality.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan if Vincent Price. He is, as always, excellent, though the other actors deserve praise, too. Oh, and Crane Wilbur’s directing is also very solid.

The Bat's steel clawed glove in The Bat (1959)

The Bat
Download link
Year: 1959
Running time: 1 h 20 min
Director: Crane Wilbur
Stars: Agnes Moorehead, Vincent Price
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

Charade (1963)

I cannot decide whether one should regret or applaud USA’s old copyright law. What it amounted to was that anything that did not have a copyright notice on it was not protected by copyright. So whenever someone forgot to put that fateful © in its proper place, that entire work automatically entered the public domain immediately upon publication. One of the victims of this was the movie Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)

We are fortunate to have Charade in the public domain, of course, since it is a gem of cinematic art. Hollywood at its absolute best. Warm, well written, effective scenography, a brilliant score, and not least an excellent cast, spearheaded by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, each doing his and her best to outshine the other. Also, it is filmed on location in Paris, which was unusual at the time.

On the flip side of that copyright coin is the fact that the big companies rarely care about public domain movies. They are hard to make money off, because anyone can go ahead and legally distribute any preserved or restored edition. Such as in this case, where a brilliant Blu-ray copy has been ripped and uploaded to the Internet Archive. In many cases, though, those nice copies never appear.

Speaking of copies, a perfect high-resolution Matroska file is available for download, but if 11.5 gigabytes put you off, you can go for the much smaller MP4 (H.264) file. Lower resolution, but still very nice quality.

This film is best enjoyed when you are unfamiliar with the plot. This interesting and funny story, with all its twists and corny characters, is a bit too complex to sum up in just a couple of sentences. Besides, it may be better to see it with as few preconceived notions as possible. Just sit back, relax, and allow yourself to be carried away. This is cinematic magic.

Cary Grant taking a shower in  Charade (1963)

Charade
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Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Stanley Donen
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1038)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (11.5 G)

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

I must confess that before I first saw The Kennel Murder Case, I had never heard of the character Philo Vance, and even after seeing the film, it was years before I realized that this was a recurring and well-known character. Well, live and learn. One day I may actually read one of the original novels with the character.

Robert Barrat and William Powell in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The film begins at a Long Island dog show, where, amongst many other dog owners, Philo Vance and Archer Coe exhibit their dogs. The following day, Coe is found dead. The police suspect suicide, but Vance is convinced that the truth lies elsewhere, and cancels a planned trip to Europe in order to investigate the case. It turns out that Coe was not a very well liked man, and many have reasons for wanting to see him dead. Vance starts to investigate the case from many different angles.

The Kennel Murder Case appears to have been the fourth and final time that William Powell played the role of Philo Vance. At least one of the previous films, The Canary Murder Case (1929) is available from the Internet Archive. In addition, there are some old radio episodes available with Philo Vance.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of whodunnits. This is a thoroughly pleasant film with good actors, good photography, and just the right amount of plot twists. If you want to explore Hollywood film from the 1930s, this is a very good place to start.

Eugene Pallette, William Powell and Robert McWade in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The Kennel Murder Case
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Year: 1933
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: William Powell, Mary Astor
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (680 M)

Pilot X (1936)

Pilot X (originally titled Death in the Air) is in many ways a unique and interesting movie. Unfortunately, it is also rather bad. But keep reading and I will tell you why it is worth watching anyway.

Biplanes dogfight in Pilot X aka Death in the Air (1936)

The story in Pilot X involves aircraft being shot down by an unknown pilot. So instead of asking around at nearby airports, trying to find a pattern matching the shootings, the investigators decide to invite a number of potential suspects to a few days at a mansion. (Checking for alibis? Nah, why bother?) Of course, there is also a girl present. Otherwise, who would be the hero’s romantic interest? Eh? Anyway, things do not go exactly as planned, and instead the guests start to be shot out of the sky, one by one.

The mansion setting technically puts this film as a part of the mansion mystery subgenre. A few months ago, I wrote a bit about that genre’s origins in my post about The Bat (1960). It is a genre with a good deal of potential. The closed space and limited number of characters result in a heightened sense of suspense, increased by the knowledge that someone has committed a terrible crime and may do so again.

As mansion mysteries go, however, Pilot X is not very spectacular. In fact, the plot is quite silly (though the ending is nice) and the actors are far from stellar. But the presence of aircraft provide a nice twist. Normally, the killer would be someone with a knife, a gun or a bottle of poison (or all three, as in And Then There Were None (1945)), not as in this case a World War I biplane with machine guns. That, as far as I know, makes the film absolutely unique. I cannot think of another one quite like it.

Director Elmer Clifton was a B film director with small budgets and less talent. (His best effort, Captain America (1944), was co-directed with experienced serial director John English.) Pilot X is fairly typical of Clifton’s efforts, unfortunately. Had it been handled with just a touch more class and professionalism, it might have been a very neat movie.

This film is best enjoyed if you are attracted by the bi-plane dogfights and the original mix of aviation and mansion mystery. The flight sequences are not bad for a B movie, and occasionally showcase some really neat action.

John Carroll, Leon Ames, Henry Hall, Hans Joby, Gaston Glass, Pat Somerset, Wheeler Oakman and Reed Howes in Death in the Air aka Pilot X (1936)

Pilot X
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Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Director: Elmer Clifton
Stars: Lona Andre, John Carroll
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.2 G)

And Then There Were None (1945)

Agatha Christie’s most well-known book (possibly together with Murder on the Orient Express) was published in 1939 as Ten Little Niggers. That title, of course, cannot be used today for reasons of political correctness, and even back then was an impossibility for the American market. Hence, movie adaptations and various editions of the book have had other titles, such as Ten Little Indians and Ten Little Soldiers.

Film and TV adaptations are numerous (Wikipedia lists over twenty). Even though I have only seen a couple, I feel fairly certain that the very first one is also one of the best. Fortunately, it is available at the Internet Archive, under the nowadays most common title: And Then There Were None.

Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Richard Haydn, C Aubrey Smith, Louis Hayward and Judith Anderson in And Then There Were None (1945)

Christie’s story is very well though-out. I sometimes find Christie’s whodunnits to be easily outguessed, but in this case it is almost impossible to be clever and guess the solution to the mystery. Clair’s adaptation also features a good bit of humour, and the ten actors playing servants and guests invited to an isolated island (the only actors you will see during most of the film) are all excellent.

This film is best enjoyed if you are unfamiliar with the ending. Some people have complained that said ending is different from the book, but in fact the movie’s ending is just a slight variant of the ending of the stage play Ten Little Niggers (later changed to Ten Little Indians), written by Christie herlself.

Roland Young, June Duprez, Barry Fitzgerald, Louis Hayward, C Aubrey Smith and Judith Anderson in And Then There Were None (1945)

And Then There Were None
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Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: René Clair
Stars: Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Huston, Louis Hayward
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (800×608)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

The Bat (1960)

When Bob Kane created Batman, who first appeared 75 years ago this month of May, he used many different sources of inspiration. One of these was a character named “The Bat”, which first appeared in a stage play with the same title. But more about Batman’s connection with The Bat later.

The Bat is a delightful little mystery, fully equipped with murder, romance, double identities, stolen money and a hidden room. It has been said to be the archetype for all later old mansion mysteries, and it has been adapted for the screen on at least four occasions. Three of these adaptations are to be found at the Internet Archive (see other links below), and my favourite is perhaps the least known of these, a TV version of The Bat from 1960, produced for the series The Dow Hour of Great Mysteries.

The Bat (1960)

The best thing about this production is the excellent cast, with legendary Helen Hayes (who had an acting career on stage and screen for over eighty years) in the lead as the old lady who finds her home invaded by people who lie, deceive and double-play. Another good actor is Jason Robards as a police detective. Not to forget Margaret Hamilton, famous for The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Today, it is tempting to dismiss The Bat as a somewhat cheap Agatha Christie rip-off. However, the original Broadway play premiered in the same year that Christie’s first story saw print, so it is more likely that Christie took inspiration from this story, although it is probably more accurate to assume that both are children of the same time.

Now, what about the Batman connection? Actually, it is not completely clear. Roland West directed two film adaptations of the story. First the silent The Bat (1926); later the talkie The Bat Whispers (1930). Bob Kane has allegedly said that he was inspired by the latter, yet the former features a much more Batman-like costume, and also a Bat signal which is arguably the origin of the Batman logo. So even though The Bat was a villain, it is confirmed that the character did make an imprint upon Batman, and the story is therefore historically interesting, in addition to being a good yarn.

This film is best enjoyed in this particular incarnation. In addition to the versions previously mentioned, there was also a film version released in 1959, The Bat starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. This, too, is good, but Hayes easily wins over Moorehead in the “old lady detective” category. Also, the plot is much tighter in the 1960 version. But, of course, if you are a Vincent Price fan, the 1959 version is a must.

Martin Brooks, Helen Hayes, Dale Ogden, Margaret Hamilton, Jason Robards and Sheppered Strudwick in The Bat (1960)

The Bat
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Year: 1960
Running time: 51 min
Director: Paul Nickell
Stars: Helen Hayes
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable

The Mystery Squadron (1933)

Today, the concept of movie serials is completely dead, but back in the beginnings of cinema storytelling, it was one of many formats which the pioneers experimented with. Even though some of the all-time greatest were made as early as the 1910s, this story-telling format lasted into the 1950s.

With the coming of sound, the serials had to be made cheaper, which in turn resulted in faster production, less original scripts, and more reliance on stereotyped characters and situations. Ironically, this may have resulted in a far more profound impact on modern-day popular culture, because those stereotypes were repeatedly projected onto the viewer’s conscience, and came to directly influence many of today’s iconic media phenomena, such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer.

The “Golden Age” of serials is generally considered to have started in 1936 with, among others, Ace Drummond. That serial is not one of my favourites, but it was probably inspired by one which came three years earlier, and which resembles it in many ways, The Mystery Squadron.

Bob Steele, Lucile Browne and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams in The Mystery Squadron (1933)

The Mystery Squadron, like most sound serials, has a simple plot. The building of a dam is harassed by a squadron of fliers headed by The Black Ace (we would call them terrorists today). The pilots Fred and “Jellybean” are hired to put an end to the trouble. But who is The Black Ace?

Even though it is just as cheap and stereotyped as any 1930s serial, The Mystery Squadron has many fine characteristics to its credit. It still has some of the freshness and playfulness of the silent serials; it is fun, and no-one, including the actors, seems to take it seriously. The mystery of who hides behind the mask of The Black Ace is also uncommonly well made (for a serial) and adds to the excitement. To top it off, the serial has one of those rare female supporting characters who is headstrong and resourceful, and herself a good pilot. On several occasions, she is the one who saves the day. Strong female characters like this were much more common in the silent days.

It certainly has its share of faults, too. The actors are rotten (even by serial standards), there are some very cheesy special effects to compensate for expensive live flying sequences, and many cliffhanger resolutions (another serial hallmark) are very corny. Also, image and sound quality of the Internet Archive copy are not very good. Fortunately, any deficiences are easily compensated by the fact that you can play The Mystery Squadron Drinking Game.

The game is simple. Just look at all the twelve episodes in sequence. Drink whenever one of the following things occur:

  • Someone uses a secret passage at the tavern.
  • You hear the radio call “The Black Ace calling station A/B.”
  • Someone is accused of being the Black Ace.
  • A model plane (supposed to show a real plane) lands or takes off.
  • Someone fires a flash grenade to blind the heroes (drink double).

Note! I have not tried The Mystery Squadron Drinking Game myself, and I take no responsibility for any adverse effects, either to your health or your bar cabinet.

This film is best enjoyed if you are well stocked with alcohol.

Bob Steele and Edward Hearn in The Mystery Squadron (1933)

The Mystery Squadron
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1933
Running time: 3 h 50 min
Directors: Colbert Clark, David Howard
Stars: Bob Steele, Guinn Williams
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4