A mad ventriloquist and his dummy mastermind a gang of thieves.
Story by Alan Burnett & Michael Reaves
Teleplay by Joe R. Lansdale
Directed by Boyd Kirkland
Music by Shirley Walker
Animation by Tokyo Movie Shinsa
Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne
Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Alfred
Bob Hastings as Commissioner Gordon
George Dzundza as Scarface/Ventriloquist
Earl Boen as Rhino
Joe Piscopo as the Manager
Neil Ross as Ratso
Batman: The Animated Series expertly combines pulp, psychosis, tragedy, character exploration, crime drama, and noir atmosphere into a smooth and smoky cocktail. Such individual episodes as “Showdown,” “Mad as a Hatter,” “Heart of Ice,” “Perchance to Dream,” “Two Face,” and “A Bullet for Bullock” may take these individual traits to their animated apogee. But standing beside them is “Read My Lips,” which combines each of these tendencies into a story of such expressive purity that you may be tempted to merely applaud and move on. But I would also put it on a par with “Perchance to Dream” and “Heart of Ice” as one of the three greatest BTAS episodes. Where “Dream” plunges deepest into the recesses of Batman’s mind, and “Ice” most eloquently articulates his battle with fallen man, “Read My Lips” may be the most satisfying entertainment the series ever offered.
In Scarface we have the Batman villain par excellence: a madman who has pushed both his inner and outer demons to the surface where they can caress and torture each other. We also get a mob boss who is more lurid than the usual top-coated heavies. The result: a decadent miasma of mental sickness and the pulpy exploitation of the same, all wrapped together in a genuinely affecting story about a man shafted by his own insecurities. (The funniest and saddest moment in the episode may be in Scarface’s paranoid recognition that he is at the mercy of a ventriloquist--that his words are not his own.) The setup consistently wrongfoots Batman, who has to rely on and save the sad little man who is causing all the trouble; the gang members, who naturally can’t choose between the two when they turn on each other; and the audience, which is both delighted by the cheekiness of the conceit and unnerved by the sense that this villain, of all the whackjobs in BTAS, is perhaps its most plausible.
There is also the very character of Scarface. One of the best things you can do as a dramatist is give a character aspects of his personality that the audience wouldn’t expect. Scarface is a dummy--literally, a blockhead. And yet he is probably the smartest and meanest adversary Batman has ever gone up against. “You can think I’m dumb,” Batman warns the ventriloquist at one point. “Just don’t talk to me like I’m dumb.” He’d have been better off following his own advice with regard to Scarface.
Nor should we overlook the expert construction that goes into the episode--it’s that construction that gives it life and lift. Writer Joe Lansdale crafts tight, evocative dialogue; director Boyd Kirkland and his storyboarders embellish its louche pace with clever angles and witty dissolves; Shirley Walker contributes a wicked jazz score; George Dzundza is utterly convincing as both the meek ventriloquist and the ruthless Scarface. There isn’t a single wrong move, misjudged shot, or flat line.
As I said, “Read My Lips” has such a natural charm that it’s very easy to note its merits and pass on by. Complacent acceptance is too often the fate suffered by smart, solid entertainments. There’s no peril in underestimating “Read My Lips”--except in cheating yourself of the company of one the best BTAS episodes ever produced.
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