Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My review for the White Elephant Blogathon: Gorilla at Large (1954, Harmon Jones)

I’ve long had a soft spot for old-fashioned “monster movies.” I’m a fan of King Kong in all his incarnations, and I always look forward to whatever Godzilla, Gamera, or Mothra adventure is booked for the annual 24-Hour Ohio Science Fiction Marathon. Granted, this genre has more than its share of lousy movies, since the idea of monsters terrorizing the populace doesn’t often invite filmmakers to create lasting art, Jaws and The Host notwithstanding. Still, I always feel a childlike glee at the thought of giant exotic beasties on the loose. So when I saw that my assigned title for this year’s White Elephant Blogathon was entitled Gorilla at Large, you can probably guess that I was pretty pumped.

But if the title itself summoned up images of a guy in a gorilla suit, the movie’s cast threw me for a loop. Many monster movies are chock full of has-beens and never-weres, but the cast for Gorilla at Large is impressive, especially for a 1954 release. It was top-lined by popular leading man Cameron Mitchell, with support from Lee J. Cobb (who would receive an Oscar nod for On the Waterfront later that year) and Rear Window baddie and future Perry Mason Raymond Burr. Plus there’s a small role for an up-and-comer named Lee Marvin, fresh off his memorably villainous turn in The Big Heat. And Gorilla’s leading lady was a Fox contract player who would go on to become a big-screen icon- Anne Bancroft.

So, you can imagine, I was eager to watch Gorilla at Large, but also a little confused. What kind of rampaging-primate thriller could attract a cast like that? As it turns out, Gorilla at Large isn’t quite what its title implies. Oh sure, a gorilla escapes its captivity during the course of the film, but for much of its duration the gorilla (named Goliath) is but another player in the drama. Instead of a full-blown monster movie, it’s a strange sort of hybrid, combining a creature feature with a murder mystery. It doesn’t quite satisfy in either respect, but it’s pretty charming all the same.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie is its visual style. For a relatively small-scale production, Gorilla at Large is pretty eye-catching, especially on the surprisingly good-looking Fox DVD release. Many of the film’s interiors look almost like something out of a Douglas Sirk melodrama (albeit one on a tight budget), while director Harmon Jones and director of photography Lloyd Ahern make good use of the colorful- and authentic- carnival setting. My favorite suspense scene in the film involves a pursuit inside a mirrored maze, and the scene wouldn’t work nearly as well without the seemingly endless reflections cast by the walls.

If only the rest of the film did so well at generating suspense, Gorilla at Large might have been a little classic. Alas, most of the movie is a relatively boilerplate whodunit, albeit one that’s been spiced up with a lumbering primate. I hate to say it, but I’ve become sort of burned out on old-school murder mysteries, and Gorilla at Large has almost nothing new to offer the formula aside from the gorilla. As with most undistinguished titles in the genre, figuring out the killer for oneself takes considerably less time than it takes the characters onscreen, and it soon becomes a matter of figuring out who wasn’t visible onscreen when the crimes took place and choosing the one who seems the least obvious. When a suspect is taken in by the police and all you can do is look at your watch and say, “okay, there’s still twenty minutes of movie left, so he can’t be the real killer,” you know there’s something the matter.

What’s more, once the true killer is revealed- I predicted this about ten minutes in, by the way- Harmon and his screenwriters find themselves with a perfect ending only to muck it up by not actually, y’know, stopping. If you’ve seen the movie, imagine how delicious and cold-blooded it might have been had the film stayed in the cellar during the climactic performance instead of cutting to the action onstage. In other words, once Joey (Mitchell) discovered the truth from Goliath’s trainer Kovacs (Peter Whitney), the film had closed on Kovacs’ line “[NAME REDACTED] has it coming,” followed only by the offscreen shrieks of terror. Maybe I’m strange like that, but I think it would’ve made Gorilla at Large a better movie.

Of course, cutting short the ending would also eliminate much of the promised gorilla-on-the-loose action. As I said before, Gorilla at Large doesn’t have much gorilla-based spectacle, which is kind of a mixed blessing. In my experience, gorillas don’t make very good monster-movie baddies unless they’re unnaturally large like King Kong and his ilk. Perhaps it’s because they’re fairly human-like, but gorillas are much better at being humorous or pathetic than they are at being scary. Still, Goliath is pretty engaging as far as man-in-suit gorillas go, and that’s largely a credit to George Barrows, the actor who manned said suit. Barrows specialized in playing apes throughout his career in Hollywood, including the inimitable Ro-Man from 1953’s notoriously awful Robot Monster, a title I nearly submitted for this year’s White Elephant until I thought of something better (or at least less toxic).

But with a cast like this one, Barrows hardly gives the film’s most notable performance. In fact, a number of Gorilla at Large’s performance outclass the material. Mitchell makes for a solid leading man, while Burr’s outsized grumpiness lends some gravity to the standard role of a husband with something to hide. Similarly, Cobb manages to put a unique spin on the character of the police investigator, giving him a hard and sometimes sarcastic edge that distinguishes him from any number of similar roles. Even Marvin manages to bring more to his part- a young policeman whose eagerness to please far outpaces his competence- than is required.

Best of all is Bancroft who, still in her early twenties, was already showing that she would become a formidable actress. Granted, a movie like Gorilla at Large wouldn’t seem to provide many chances to flex one’s acting muscles, but somehow Bancroft is able to create opportunities from what little she’s given. She brings surprising complexity to the Laverne, a skilled aerialist stuck in a dead-end life of playing second banana (ha ha) to a gorilla. From the role that was no doubt written as a femme fatale, Bancroft conveys the weariness and barely sublimated desperation of a woman who has more or less seen it all and nonetheless clings to the hope that she might still ride her skill to legitimate stardom. Bancroft gives far better than she gets in Gorilla at Large- one of the characteristics of a great actor. Truth in reporting also requires me to state that she’s incredibly sexy here, not simply because of the skimpy costumes she performs in, but the self-assurance that would become one of her trademarks as an actress.

In later years, Bancroft’s husband Mel Brooks would often rib her about Gorilla at Large on talk shows. But although the movie’s title and premise make it an easy target, it’s certainly no worse than any number of B movies from the era. And while it doesn’t quite succeed as a mystery or a killa-gorilla thrilla (sorry), it’s still worthwhile as a time capsule of the sort of movies Hollywood has forgotten how to make. Now that B-movies are getting A-budgets, blockbusters are continually trying to make the biggest and loudest spectacle of all. So it’s refreshing to see a movie with the modest charms of Gorilla at Large- a movie that only needed a handful of well-chosen actors and the sight of a man in a gorilla suit carrying around a young, scantily-clad Anne Bancroft to reel in audiences.

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