dir. Harmon Jones
"That costume does look quite real on you."
Cameron Mitchell, Anne Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb, Raymond Burr, Lee Marvin--were these five actors to have performed together the resultant movie would have been such a monumental, blisteringly powerful achievement, it would have burned right through the celluloid. It'd be that fucking good. No film stock yet produced could have contained the energy. Alas, such a grouping of actors could exist only in my wildest imagination...or so I had previously thought. Apparently, someone learned of my desire for such a movie, went back in time to the fifties and produced the 3d thriller extravaganza Gorilla at Large under the auspices of a below the radar film company. Wow, this movie has the previously mentioned actors and a killer gorilla? Oh happy day.
Perry Mason star Burr plays the carnival's seemingly nefarious owner Cy Miller. Conflicts up the wazoo are established right from the get go, as Miller is in the middle of a sordid relationship with trapeze artist Mrs. Robins- er, I mean, Laverne (Anne Bancroft). Just how sordid is this relationship? Well, it would seem that these two lovebirds hooked up immediately after her previous hubby, trapeze artist Kewpie Adams, just so conveniently fell to his death when performing an act with Miller and Laverne (yes, Kewpie was the motherfucker's name [Side note: a person unfortunate enough to be cursed with the name Kewpie has only two possible career options: One is working in a carnival and the other involves swallowing copious amounts of cum (In case you didn't understand this witty bit of innuendo, I'm talking about prostitution. The person would be a prostitute.)]). Incidentally, Laverne had gotten mixed up with Kewpie, only after ending her relationship with Faulknerian Idiot Man-child Gorilla trainer Kovacs (Peter Whitney). That's just a whole big bag full o' tawdry right there. That's what that is.
Perry Mason soon grows suspicious when Mrs. Robinson decides to start a new act with young carny Joey Matthews (Cameron Mitchell). Perry Mason feels that he could be pushed out of the picture after he surreptitiously witnesses Mrs. Robinson and Matthews gettin' they dalliance on. Why would Perry Mason be worried? It seems that in addition to losing his lover, he would lose his life. You see, as we will find out in the film's thrilling, surprising conclusion, Mrs. Robinson is a black widowish type, only too happy to dress up in a gorilla costume and bump off old lovers, thereby pinning the blame on the giant gorilla Goliath. [SPOILER ALERT: YOU JUST READ A MAJOR FUCKING SPOILER!] You would think that dressing up in a bargain basement gorilla suit in an attempt at framing a supposedly murderous ape would be a monumentally stupid way to commit murders. Fortunately, Goliath, the "actual" gorilla in this film, is just as hokey looking. Steven Spielberg, in Jaws, had the good sense to mercifully limit his fake shark's screen time. With Gorilla at Large, however, the filmmakers proudly showcase their cheapo gorilla suit clad stuntman.
The extent to which this film paints Perry Mason as the killer, only to pull the rug out from under us, is quite comical. In an early scene Perry Mason goes and fires ne'er do well carny Morse (John Kellogg) for apparently non-existent reasons. This scene is layered with the sort of intrigue, subtext and pointed barbs generally reserved for movies about institutions of infinitely more importance than carnival life. Adding to the intrigue, Morse is offed in the following scene, his body being discovered in Goliath's cage. Although most of the characters are revealed to have motives, all of the obvious signs point to Perry Mason. Specifically, Morse had been black-mailing the carnival owner for his earlier involvement in Kewpie's death (or so we would think). Apparently, director Harmon Jones was attempting to show that the world of carnyin' was just as ripe for intense, high powered thrillers as was the political/corporate world. This was the only theme that I took from this movie. Carnival life is no different from corporate life.
Indeed, everything about the carny world, as presented here, is hilariously incongruent. Perry Mason is a dapper dresser, whose well appointed office is stocked with a liquor cabinet full of only the finest imported spirits. If this movie were set at a real carnival, the only murders taking place would be those of patrons falling from the rides--rides shoddily maintained by AA members and ex-cons more interested in getting sleeve tattoos sufficient enough to mask track marks than in keeping all of the equipment up to code.
There's so much doin's a transpirin' here that an expert has to be called in to make sense of it all. Enter Lee J. Cobb as the crusty but benign Detective Sgt. Garrison, a man intent on cracking this case wide open. This son of a bitch is tough as nails, but damned if he don't get his man (or gorilla, or woman as the case may be. In case you didn't already read the spoiler above, it's a woman in this case). A man as gruff as Garrison sure would need a comic relief foil to counteract his orneriness. Thankfully he has Lee Marvin as incompetent sidekick Shaughnessy. [Side note: To prepare for his role as an Irishman, Marvin spent his entire life being an alcoholic (wow, what a cheap, easy joke. I'm getting lazy.).] Although Garrison initially suspects Matthews is the killer, Matthews soon helps the detective find the real killer, and in his free time, love on said killer.
The almost love story between Matthews and Mrs. Robinson is one of the more confusing/interesting plot threads in the movie. Matthews is a young kid who took up with the carnival alongside his girlfriend Audrey (Charlotte Austin) in order to grow a nest egg and save some money for law school. One would think that a monkey wrench would have been thrown into the works of this young young relationship after Matthews took up with Mrs. Robinson. Although the relationship started off innocent enough, Matthews and Mrs. Robinson would eventually, in one scene, share a deep, passionate kiss. This may not seem like much by today's movie standards, but if we use the "filmic representations of sex inflation calculator," we will see that Matthews, in effect, has cornholed Mrs. Robinson. This was a pretty big deal. Interestingly, no conflict between Matthews and Audrey ever arises as a result. Indeed, no moral questions are ever raised in regards to his involvement with Mrs. Robinson. Matthews and Mrs. Robinson become briefly involved and then the potential problem is solved when Mrs. Robinson is arrested for murder. Matthews and Audrey go off and live happily ever after. Could this be a Mad Men-esque attempt to portray Matthews as a complex character who, although he may love his girlfriend can not squelch his desire to spread his seed, a man with battling loyalties? Maybe, it is just a sign of the chauvinistic times in that the men-folk can go about bein' all philanderin' and such, while the women-folk would have to be punished for such actions. In this world, although it's natural and indeed welcomed for a man to cheat, a woman who would cheat would be seen as so nefarious that she would also have no problems with cold-blooded murder. Or maybe all of this is just due to sloppy writing? Or could I just be reading too much into a shitty movie? [Side note: My Robert Evans-esque tendency in this piece to ask myself questions is starting to annoy even me. I will stop it.]
I would be a liar were I to say that I didn't get caught up in the whole murder mysteriness of this movie. The film's eventual surprise was something of a shock. Admittedly, I have never been adept at deducing the identities of the killers in movies of this sort, but I was still surprised that I couldn't figure this one out. Mostly, this ending surprised me insomuch as I expected the reveal to be little dumber than it actually was. I had actually expected that this movie would go with the extremely obvious choice of Perry Mason as the killer. I had assumed that the finger pointed at him the entire time because the writers were inept at creating suspense. Then they changed that shit. I see what you did there, movie. I thought you were gonna zig, and then you went and zagged on me. How sneaky of you. The film's surprise twist manged to surpass my exceedingly low expectations. By these standards, Gorilla at Large is an accidental success.