Sometimes it's nice to forget about how sophisticated and smart and clever we are and just sit back and enjoy something for no other reason than it's entertaining. Maybe it's a bit dated or lacking in the style. And so what if it's black and white?
Clocking in at just over an hour, 1933's Murders in the Zoo is such a film. Few of the actors will even be known to today's audiences. Charles Ruggles (Peter Yatesnot the guy directed the best car movie ever, 1968's Bullitt), who had a long career as a comedic performer. Lionel Atwill (Eric Gorman), who had a long career, best known for his "villain" roles in suspense and horror films. Randolph Scott (Doctor Jack Woodford), probably the best known. He spent most of his long career making westerns, many of the "B" picturesthough his final screen appearence was in Sam Peckinpah's elegy to the west Ride the High Country (1962).
Throughout there are traces from the early days of film. The credits sequence, where they show live shots of the main cast with their name and character's name below (intercut nicely with shots of animals). Numerous vertical wipes not only for scene transition but during a montage sequence of people, keepers, and animals going about their respective activities in the zoo. Ruggles' comic relief sometimes seems obligatory rather than necessary or helpful to the story. Minimal score. The acting is sometimes a bit overexpressivemore theatrical than natural. Very little camera movement. It generally looks old (by techniqueand I imagine to those who have never watched enough cinema to no longer care whether a movie is from 1918 or 1981).
On the other hand, that is part of the fun, the charm of the picture. A slice of yesteryear. You can almost imagine catching it after the "A" picture and the newsreel in one of the old movie palaces on a summer afternoon (for the record, something I am too young to have ever experienced). And the story ain't half bad, either.
Murders in the Zoo is about jealousy and murder, a sort of Americanized Jacobean play for the masses (only without the bodycount at the end featuring the characters you like). And given the date and the running time, it packs quite a bit in.
We start in exotic French Indochina. As successive shots propel you through the foliage to the jungle floor, you see a man hovering over something doing what appears to be threading something. The man is "millionaire sportsman" Eric Gorman (his job is to get animals for the zoo). You then realize the "thing" is another man. Gorman speaks
...a Mongolian prince taught me this, Taylor. An ingenious device for the right occasion. You'll never lie to a friend again and you'll never kiss another man's wife....
Gorman gets up and leaves with the native attendants. He pays them for their services and prepares to go. The man on the ground struggles to rise, his hands tied together. He manages to escape into the jungleand then there it is: the shot.
Some movies are known for a single shot. Even if you've seen all of David Cronenberg's Scanners (1981), what you remember best is the "shot." The exploding head. This is 1933 and there's nothing so effects-heavy, but it is striking enough that very few reviews of discussions about the film can avoid it (I've never seen it not brought up). After disappearing into the leaves, there is a cut to a close up of his face with his lips grotesquely and wetly sewn shut. He'd scream if only he could. It must have been utterly shocking to viewers of the time (it holds up, well). And surprisingly coming from a major studio (Paramount).
This, of course, is less than five minutes into the movie. And, no, there is nothing that tops it or equals it. But it sets the stage for the cruelty to come.
Gorman is a cold and controlling man whose wife no longer loves himyet she cannot leave because she is afraid of him. "Taylor" had only tried to kiss her. Gorman said that he "went off alone." Later a native comes and says "can't find white man. Tigers eat." Which was basically Gorman's intention. Get rid of the potential suitor, something he's more than willing to doin his own words: "anything I've done, I've done because I love you. If I lacked the courage to kill for you, I could not expect you to go on loving me." He says he loves animals for "their honesty, their simplicity, their primitive emotions. They love, they hate, they kill." Much like Gorman.
Enter the zoo. The "MUNICIPAL ZOO." The zoo is having money troubles (of course) and needs to raise funds. Yates is hired as the "Publicity Department for the Animals." Even though he's afraid of them (he is also bumbling and there are numerous references to his former drinking problemall played rather broad, but fun). He dreams up the idea that the zoo should hold a banquet in the main "cage room" with the animals. Then they can ask their rich socialite guests for donations.
Prior to the banquet, biologist and toxicologist Doctor Woodford (who works at the zoo) is presented with a specimen of "green mamba" by Gorman for study. It has no known "antitoxin" and has the "swiftest acting venom there is." This is known as foreshadowing.
The banquet, itself, holds wonderful surreal possibilities under the right director, especially one with the benefit of comprehensive cinematic knowledge. Perhaps the whole film. The film doesn't have that, yet manages to be a bizarre little oddity unlike much of anything produced by the major studios at the time. Much more in common with one of the "poverty row" type studios, only with name stars and nice prduction values. But that's good. Too much sense of self-awareness and might just ruin the movie, robbing it of its entertainment and cult value. It shouldn't be remade.
At the banquet, Mrs. Gorman's current love interest, Roger Hewitt, (who had been pointed out to Gorman inadvertantly by by Yates) becomes the next victim. Each guest has litle placecards next to their seat. The victim finds his right next to Mrs. Gorman, something that surprises both. Each card has little drawings of zoo animalshers a happy little cartoon lion, his an angry tiger. She shows she suspects but says nothing. Mr. Gorman sits directly in front of them at the table.
During the banquet, Hewitt "faints" away. It is later discovered that he died of mamba venom and the snake is obviously suspected (implying Woodford's "negligence"). To everyone else, it's a mystery but the audience knows who it was. In fact, there is little actual mystery about the film. It is something of a puzzle. Not something to actively figure out, but something that causes interest and wonder. With no real "hero" (Scott really isn't given the screen time or material to be much of one), the audience is moved by the events of the story.
And seeing just where each scene leads becomes interesting in its own rightno clear expectation of what the next scene or two will bring and such economy of story (given the script and pared down running length), that there isn't much development to make such predictions. Sure you get some ideas through foreshadowing, but that doesn't really seem to matter. More of the fun.
Because of the incident, the zoo is in even worse dire straits. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gorman finds something incrimidating in her husband's desk drawer: the head of a mamba (still oozing venom). She goes to tell the doctor. Gorman returns and finds his "weapon" missing. He chases her down and confronts her (on an arcing footbridge at nightnice set), finding she no longer loves him ("you're not human") and plans to tell everyone that he's a murderer, he smothers her and drops her into the pond below where the zoo's alligators go to work.
The zoo is shut down, possibly for good. Some kids who sneak in find remnants of clothing near the alligators"looks like someone got 'et." Gorman identifies the garment as his wife's and begins making wild accusations and threats of criminal charges. We next find the "ZOO IS CLOSED PERMANENTLY BY CITY COUNCIL." before the offices are shut down, Doctor Woodford rushes to complete as much research as he can. While doing it, he discovers that the width of the mamba bite is different than the fangs of the specimen he was given.
He calls Gorman and asks for a meeting, refusing to give details over the phone. Suspicious, Gorman brings the "head" in a handkerchief. Woodford confronts Gorman, accusing him of the death and noting that "by your own admission, no one else in the country could have one." Each time he turns away, Gorman, who is fumbling with the object in his handkerchief, prepares to strike only to pull back or wipe his brow when Woodford turns (a nicely acted scene with decent suspense). Finally he has his chance and strikes, hitting the doctor in the arm.
He then kills the snake just in time for the doctor's assisstant (and girlfriend) to show up. He fabricates a story that Woodford must have killed the snake right after being bitten. Then, to his surprise, he hears that they had just perfected the antitoxin that day (of course). Menacingly, he moves toward her with the head but she throws a heavy pestle at him, running to the doctor and locking the door to the lab. She then calls Yates and has him notify the police.
The zoo goes into lockdown, essentially trapping Gorman but he continues to elude the police. In what was probably the most dangerous and expensive scene in the film, he enters the "cage room" and pulls the release ring that opens all the cagesleading to chaotic fighting by about a dozen lions, tigers, and leopards that probably would get them sued by the ASPCA if not shut down, today. He runs out of the room, animals following (but there as a diversion). He hides in one of the cages and slams shut the door.
Fittingly, he has locked himself in with one of the zoo's large snakes. It bites him and them wraps itself around him, its coils finishing the job its venom began. He dies.
Sure, there's some denouement, but we really don't care. Anymore than the final scene of Yatesback to drinking again after his experiencesslapping a lion who wanders up to him. The lion walks away and he stumbles on. We're supposed to laugh.
The compactness makes it a nice brief bit of entertainment. Better than one could ever have expected. It's also a little unpolished gem that's been largely forgotten (if not for the "shot," it'd probably be even less known). Another part of its charm. Sorta like that band you like but hesitate to tell others about so it remains your little secret. Murders in the Zoo is special in that way. Cherish it, but tell no one....
(Sources: personal copy of the film on video; some reference-checking courtesy of the IMDB)
(Okay, you can tell peoplebut the day Hollywood decides to make one of its damned remakes of it, I'm coming after you. With the head of a snake.)