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You wouldn't guess it from the sinister title, but Garden of Evil (1954) is probably the most eye-catching western Gary Cooper made in the 1950s. It's more visually striking than Fred Zinnemann's renowned High Noon (1952), which opened two years earlier, and it comes close to that picture in its storytelling power. Credit for the film's marvelous look goes partly to its dual cinematographers, Milton Krasner and Jorge Stahl, Jr., and partly to the one-two punch of Technicolor and CinemaScope, both contributing their utmost even though the wide-screen process was less than a year old. Major kudos also go to director Henry Hathaway, who had created comparably exciting images in his 1953 thriller Niagara, shortly before anamorphic lenses made their debut. Garden of Evil was only his second 'Scope production (his first was Prince Valiant earlier in 1954) and he'd already mastered the format. Frank Fenton's screenplay - one of the last feature-film scripts he wrote before turning to TV in the 1960s - also merits applause.
The tale begins with three men walking out of the sea onto a sunny beach, meeting one another for the first time. The only thing they have in common is that they're would-be prospectors whose steamship broke down before reaching California, where they planned to search for gold. Now they're stranded indefinitely in a nondescript Mexican village. Cooper plays Hooker, a rootless man who rarely says more than he needs to. Richard Widmark plays Fiske, a gambler with a sardonic sense of humor. Cameron Mitchell plays Daly, an impetuous personality with a weakness for women and fighting.
The men expect nothing but boredom until the steamship is repaired, but that abruptly changes when they meet Leah Fuller, played by Susan Hayward with equal measures of sexiness and toughness. Walking into the local cantina, she announces that her husband is trapped in a distant gold mine and offers an enormous price to anyone who helps her rescue him. All three travelers accept the offer, as does a Mexican named Madariaga, and together they ride off with Leah to the mine, quarreling and scrapping along the way.
For much of its length, Garden of Evil focuses on the rivalries, jealousies, and suspicions that arise during this journey; some are prompted by covetousness for the gold that's waiting at their destination, others by desire for the beautiful woman who's leading the expedition. Tensions reach a climax when Daly tries to force his affections on Leah, but Hooker intervenes in the nick of time, and the group remains intact. Eventually they reach the mine and rescue the severely injured husband, John, played by Hugh Marlowe with more emotional oomph than he usually delivers. Instead of thanking his saviors, John gives a bitter speech denouncing Leah for causing his troubles and accusing the others of conspiring with her. On top of all this, the surrounding mountains are full of hostile Apaches who have staked out the mine for attack. John says they came to look at him when he was trapped, and left him alone only because they couldn't think of a more horrible way for him to die. Now that he's been freed, they're sure to come after him and his rescuers without delay.
As a psychological western from the 1950s, Garden of Evil has a family resemblance to classics made by Budd Boetticher (e.g., Seven Men from Now in 1956, The Tall T in 1957) and Anthony Mann (e.g., The Naked Spur in 1953, The Man from Laramie in 1955) during that period. Hooker is the conflicted hero of Hathaway's film, and Cooper's lanky frame and taciturn manner recall those of troubled James Stewart and dogged Randolph Scott in the Mann and Boetticher pictures. By contrast, Mitchell's mean, sweaty, bluntly physical Daly points ahead to Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns of the 1970s, and Marlowe makes John a specimen of sulky self-absorption who lends new complexity to the movie's second act. As for Hayward, she more than holds her own in this overwhelmingly male company - the film's only other woman is a singer (Rita Moreno) in the cantina scene - and that's a feat not every actress could accomplish.
Garden of Evil started out as a script called "The Fifth Rider," which circulated at Twentieth Century Fox just as studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck was looking for projects that seemed especially well suited to CinemaScope treatment. The story was originally set in Arizona, but Zanuck quickly changed the locale to southern Mexico, where jungle, mountain, and volcanic landscapes were readily available. (The working title "Volcano" was scrapped to avoid confusion with Vulcano, 1950, a recent Italian film.) Making the most of the terrific scenery, Hathaway shows characters and horses jumping over mountain gorges, threading their way along narrow cliffs, falling into deep ravines, and posing before sunsets aglow with Technicolor hues.
Although the picture went over budget and exceeded its shooting schedule, it wound up costing a reasonable two million dollars - good value for such a polished production - and went on to earn a healthy million-dollar profit. Some reviews found its technical excellence to be both a pro and a con. New York Times critic A.H. Weiler praised "the powers at [Fox] for having the good judgment to transport their Technicolor cameras to strange but impressively scenic Mexican locales, which give mood, color and authority to a basically lean adventure." Variety opined that the 'Scope cinematography "greatly increases the visual impact of the outdoor scenes and becomes such an important part of the story-telling it almost overpowers the plot drama at times."
The unsigned Variety review also criticized Bernard Herrmann's score for being so "busy" at times that "concentration on the drama is impossible." Quite the opposite, I find his composing richly effective from the start, when a pulse recalling his legendary music for Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960) lends a hint of tension to the opening scene. Herrmann knew how to enhance drama, not compete with it. And as the only western he ever scored, Garden of Evil has a unique place in his illustrious body of work.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Henry Hathaway
Screenplay: Frank Fenton (screenplay); Fred Freiberger, William Tunberg (story)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner, Jorge Stahl, Jr.
Art Direction: Edward Fitzgerald, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Cast: Gary Cooper (Hooker), Susan Hayward (Leah Fuller), Richard Widmark (Fiske), Hugh Marlowe (John Fuller), Cameron Mitchell (Luke Daly), Rita Moreno (Cantina Singer), Vctor Manuel Mendoza (Vicente Madariaga).
by David Sterritt