Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Gorilla at Large (1954)

The title of Gorilla at Large suggests a fun campfest. In fact this is a murder mystery, and not a bad one. But don’t worry - there’s plenty of silly fun as well.

This movie belongs to the small but interesting genre of circus/carnival murder mysteries, along with the excellent Ring of Fear (also made in 1954 oddly enough - this was a big year for the genre).

Perhaps the strangest thing about this film is that it boasts an all-star cast. And I’m not being sarcastic. Raymond Burr, Lee J. Cobb, Anne Bancroft, Cameron Mitchell and Lee Marvin - all big (or at least moderately big) names, and they can all act.

The setting is a carnival run by Cy Miller (Raymond Burr). Anne Bancroft plays his wife Laverne who does a trapeze act involving a gorilla (yes, really). Joey Matthews (Cameron Mitchell) and his girlfriend Audrey Baxter (Charlotte Austin) are working in the carnival while Joey takes a break from law school.

The carnival’s major crowd-puller is Goliath the gorilla. How do you make a gorilla into a really big attraction? That’s simple. You have a pretty girl doing a trapeze act above his cage, and you have her seem to be on the verge of falling into the clutches of the lust-crazed ape. The fact that this particular gorilla happens to strongly dislike Laverne adds a touch of real danger.

Things start to go wrong when Miller fires Morse (John Kellogg), a sleazy sideshow operator. Morse is then found dead in the gorilla’s cage. But one thing is immediately apparent to Detective-Sergeant Garrison (Lee J. Cobb) - whoever killed Morse it wasn’t Goliath the gorilla.

There had been an unfortunate (in fact fatal) accident at the carnival a few years previously). Garrison suspects a connection but whatever the connection might be it’s not immediately obvious. It’s also clear that quite a few members of this show have things that they’re hiding.

Joey’s situation becomes somewhat awkward when he’s asked to become part of Laverne’s act. Laverne is, to put things delicately, a friendly sort of girl. And she’s really friendly towards Joey. Joey isn’t really part of this world but he’s being drawn into it and it’s likely to get kind of perilous for him.

It gets perilous for everybody. Morse’s murder was the first but it isn’t the last. Leonard Praskins and Barney Slater wrote the screenplay and in between the outrageousness there’s a decent enough mystery plot in there.

Director Harmon Jones had an undistinguished movie career before moving into television in the mid-50s. He actually does a fairly good job here, making skillful use of the carnival setting and keeping the pacing pleasingly tight.

With such an impressive cast you’d expect the acting to be a cut above the usual B-movie standards, and it is. Burr projects a subtle sense of menace but doesn’t go over the top. Bancroft, just twenty-two at the time, is excellent in what is really a classic femme fatale role. Cameron Mitchell is solid. Lee J. Cobb is less mannered than usual and makes a plausible sympathetic-but-tough cop. Lee Marvin is great fun as a uniformed cop with delusions of grandeur. Peter Whitney is brooding and creepy as Goliath’s handler Kovacs. Warren Stevens is quite competent as Sergeant Garrison’s offsider.

This was actually the second time Raymond Burr had starred in a rampaging gorilla movie, the first being Bride of the Gorilla in 1951.

Fox released this one in a two-disc two-movie Midnite Movies pack, paired with Mystery of Monster Island (which I haven’t watched yet). Gorilla at Large gets a very nice anamorphic transfer. The movie was shot in Technicolor, making this one of the ambitious 1950s gorilla movies.

Gorilla at Large has its share of high camp moments but it’s also an unexpectedly well-made and well-acted production. I’m not claiming it’s a forgotten cinematic classic but it’s a decent little movie. And it’s hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

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