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Monday, September 6, 1999 Published at 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK


Batman's dark past

Modern Batman films owe a lot to The Bat Whispers

Sixty years after Batman first appeared in detective comics, the true inspiration behind the caped crusader has come to light - a black and white film from the 1930s.

The BBC's Paul Welsh rediscoversThe Bat Whispers
Cartoon artist Bob Kane, Batman's creator, cited three influences for his world of Batman. The character of Bruce Wayne he took from Douglas Fairbanks Snr.

The idea of a man flying using wings came from Leonardo da Vinci.

But the most important element, the concept of a bat/man, the cape and cowl and the dark sinister, shadowy feel which distinguished his character from the gleaning "superman" hero was a 1935 movie called The Bat Whispers.

Great innovation

In its day, The Bat Whispers was a groundbreaking movie experience. It was one of the first to be shot in widescreen format in the early days of sound.

For many years, this widescreen version was considered lost.

[ image: Creepy goings on in The Bat Whispers]
Creepy goings on in The Bat Whispers
But now it has been rediscovered and restored by the UCLA film archive, allowing modern audiences to see both the film's precocious brilliance and the latter day Batman's debt to the 1930s classic.

Indeed, The Bat Whispers, a thriller about a master criminal dressed as a bat, is best remembered for what came after it.

Its thrilling stunts and special effects inspired Bob Kane when he was asked to come up with a new super hero 60 years ago.

"There's a moment when he emerges from the shadows which has the feel of something very special and is the kind of image that will stay with you," explains Erich Sargeant of the British Film Institute, which is releasing The Bat Whispers on video.

"It reminded me of the film Alien - when you first see the alien. In the shadows there is a little movement and slowly a shape is revealed. It's an eerie moment and it still works now 60 years on."

Sinister borrowings

It's not just the batman that has been borrowed from the 1930s film. Much of its blackness, even some of the camera moves, would look familiar to viewers of the more modern Batman movies.

But what modern directors achieve with the latest computer technology, Roland West directed with a bulky, primitive camera, physically moved on a crane.

[ image: Modern Batman: Shows his dark side]
Modern Batman: Shows his dark side
"The swooping shots were incredible with the camera hurtling down the road up to the side of buildings, up walls, in through windows - it's just so refreshing to see this in a movie of this period," says Sargeant.

The latest Batman films, such as Batman and Robin in 1997, have seen a return to a darker character and more atmospheric sets after the softer image the superhero adopted earlier.

Batman experts say it is a move back towards the film which was its inspiration.

However, unlike modern Batman blockbusters, the Bat Whispers was not a success.

In the 1930s, cinemas couldn't cope with the new format, it didn't do as well as it might have and the widescreen film almost vanished forever.

Now, with its restoration, it will enter movie history books as a good film that inspired greatness.

The Bat Whispers can be obtained from the BFI. Telephone: 0171-957 8936.

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