Batman: The Movie (1966)

March 11th, 2022
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Leslie H. Martinson | Cast: Adam West, Burt Ward, Lee Merlwether, Cesar Romero | US, 105′

Incredible as it may seem, it was just over fifty years ago today that this movie originally premiered at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas. It’s a substantially different entity from the TV original, to which it doesn’t do justice. The series looks better each passing year with its clean lines and pristine, saturated colours which more resemble the dynamism and visual clarity of an actual comic strip than the murky recent big screen offerings. Despite the supposedly juvenile demographic of this ‘Batman’, it has more literate dialogue than any modern superhero movie: could you imagine Christian Bale’s Batman possessing the vocabulary to employ a phrase like “human jetsam”?

But at 105 minutes the movie feels overstretched and rambling, and I miss the narration by producer William Dozier that was so much part of the TV series. The bigger budget meant the producers could splash out on The Penguin’s submarine along with the Batboat, Batcopter, and Batcycle; which came in handy as embellishments to seasons Two & Three, but which for me slow the action down (I find The Penguin’s sub very confining during the latter half of the movie, and staging the final punch-up on it’s narrow deck feels more cramped than similar showdowns in the TV series; especially as it’s obviously shot on the studio tank in front of a painted backdrop of the sky). On the plus side there are none of those endless back stories for each villain that take up so much of more recent Batman movies; although the fact that The Catwoman is already a “known supercriminal” with a long career in larceny already behind her, yet Batman doesn’t immediately recognise her at a press conference masquerading as Kitanya Irenya Tatanya Karenska Alisoff of the ‘Moscow Bugle’ really does strain credibility, even by the standards of an unabashed piece of hokum like this.

An incidental advantage the 1966 movie has over both the TV series and the later movies is in the characterisations. In one of the Tim Burton movies Batman casually turns a flamethrower on a few goons; which is really not acceptable conduct for the guy who’s supposed to be the Good Guy. This Batman risks his own life to spare a family of ducks; which is as it should be. Adam West spends much more time as Bruce Wayne in the movie than he usually does in the TV series, and as Wayne is permitted a more fiery temperament than Batman ever displays; as when he loses his temper and attempts to head-butt The Riddler. All those narcissistic egos cooped up together on Penguin’s submarine also generate friction: I particularly liked The Joker’s admonition when it falls to The Riddler to post a ransom demand: “And none of your stupid riddles, do you understand? Make those messages plain!”, and the droll nautical exchange between Penguin and two of his goons (probably ad libbed by Meredith), “Yo Ho!” – “Yo Ho What?” – “SIR!”.

And then there’s Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman.

Julie Newmar being unavailable, Ms Meriwether stepped into Newmar’s ankle boots (minus the gold chain and medallion around her neck that Newmar always wore) at the very last minute, and director Leslie Martinson initially had to shoot around her; yet another reason why she actually has so disappointingly little screen time uniformed as The Catwoman compared to the interminable Kitka footage. But from this liability a special strength inadvertently derives, and the film’s take on The Catwoman is both unique and closer to the comic strip; never to be repeated.

When the movie was made Julie Newmar had so far made only one isolated appearance in Season One; so this represents only The Catwoman’s second appearance among the premier league baddies (whereas Gorshin’s appearance as The Riddler is almost a swansong; after being nominated for an Emmy he fell out with the producers over money and made only one more appearance in the series in Season Three). Because all the usual lovey-dovey stuff between Batman and The Catwoman that Julie Newmar found so boring is reserved for the scenes with “Miss Kitka”, for the first and last time The Catwoman herself is portrayed purely as a ruthless career criminal bent on the defeat of the Dynamic Duo, her mind solely on her work with a single-mindedness far removed from the flirtatiousness and playful good humour of Newmar and Kitt. (More like an actual cat in fact.)

To this day most people still don’t get it that the Bruce/Kitka ‘romance’ was purely a calculated ruse on the part of The Catwoman to lure The Caped Crusader into a trap. Furthermore, while Newmar deliciously played The Catwoman with the light of madness forever dancing in her eyes (and alone of all the actresses to have played her seemed genuinely weird enough to have chosen to adopt a clinging wet-look catsuit as her regular working clothes), Meriwether by contrast remains uncomplicatedly mean & sociopathic. Both Newmar and Kitt seem authentically to have clawed their way from the wrong side of the tracks; but Meriwether has the insolent air of entitlement of a prom queen gone bad, thus cutting a much more incongruous figure as a grown woman in the fetish gear Newmar and Kitt seemed born to wear (as worn by them, wet-look black stretch lamé wasn’t merely a fabric it was a weapon!), in which Meriwether marches about rather than slinks. (SPOILER COMING: Any healthy, red-blooded male, by the way, would ultimately be far more likely to be thrilled than heart-broken to find the woman he’s been stepping out with attired as The Catwoman.) Of the three, Meriwether also most resembles those coldly handsome, high-cheekboned harpies that regularly populate comic books.

Gorshin’s Riddler is plainly headed for a padded cell rather than jail when this is all over, with Meriwether’s Catwoman the least flamboyantly crazy of the four: just another criminal to be caged. When Bruce Wayne warns the assembled baddies that “I swear by heaven. If you’ve harmed that girl. I’ll kill you all!”, unusually for a female adversary The Catwoman is obviously included in this threat. And when finally unmasked and batcuffed, Meriwether’s Catwoman reveals herself in her true colours by showing not the faintest flicker of remorse as she is led away pouting to the slammer; unrepentantly heartless and irredeemably evil to the end. Way to Go, Lee!! @RIchardChatten

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