Garden of Evil Review
Having invented Cinemascope in 1953, 20th Century Fox didn’t quite know what to do with it. It was initially a gimmick, like Cinerama and 3-D, but being a lot more practical to exhibit, it became much more popular. It’s not surprising that in the first few years of the format, Fox ended up making a good number of what were, to all intents and purposes, B-Movies tarted up with big stars and lush 2.55:1 cinematography. Garden Of Evil is a case in point, a Western from 1954 with a very familiar plot which is given a certain amount of new life through highly professional presentation.
The plot is basically a straight Western romp translated wholesale to Mexico, although there are certainly none of the ‘Spaghetti-in-embryo’ political implications which Robert Aldrich brought to a similar setting in another Gary Cooper film, Vera Cruz. Three disparate men, with shady pasts, are thrown together when they disembark en route to California in a small Mexican village. Given the job of helping a woman rescue her husband trapped in a gold mine, they agree to go along for the price of two thousand dollars each. But the stakes are higher than they seem when a group of hostile Indians are encountered and the true nature of each man begins to reveal itself.
Henry Hathaway was rarely an inspired director but he was a professional through and through, a reliable pair of hands for a wide range of genres and subjects. At his best, he made some excellent movies - Kiss Of Death being the jewel in the crown - and there are numerous movies which are given a lift by his craftsmanship - examples include The Sons of Katie Elder, Niagra, North To Alaska and 13 Rue Madeleine. As one of Fox’s contract directors he seems to have had few problems adapting to Cinemascope and, like Elia Kazan in East of Eden, he’s very adept at creating frames within frames whenever he wants a more claustrophobic visual feel.
The narrative - not especially complex, although some commentators have tried to read a liberal social subtext into it - seems to have been little more than a peg upon which to hang some stunning photography of the Mexican locations and, to this extent, it serves its purpose. The cast are slotted in with little effort made to characterise them beyond their traditional personas. Gary Cooper, perhaps the most underrated of all classic Hollywood stars, is as watchable as ever and brings authority and presence to a situation which often seems to be drowning in cliche. He also gets one of his very best exit lines - “If the world were made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt”. If the rest of the script were up to this level then the film would be more memorable. As it is, ‘Coop just about holds it together. Richard Widmark, stylish as hell, has plenty of fun as a wise-cracking gambler and Susan Hayward is gorgeous to look at and a typically feisty heroine. In support, Cameron Mitchell glowers in his patented fashion and Hugh Marlowe hams away with entertaining abandon, especially during a misogynistic rant at Hayward.
The cinematography, by Milton Krasner and Jorge Stahl, is splendid with colours so rich that it seems you could almost reach out and touch them. It’s this visual splendour which somewhat ameliorates the very slow pace and almost distracts you from the fact that the film is almost completely devoid of suspense. The action, when it finally comes, is effectively staged but a little perfunctory, as if Hathaway has somehow lost interest. However, he’s very fortunate in his choice of composer. In addition to the look of the film, the best reason to watch it is for Bernard Herrmann’s quite magnificent music score. Not a composer usually associated with the West, Herrmann does a great job. This isn’t self-effacing film music; it’s grandstanding on a huge scale by a true artist, and his compositions sweep you along with enough force to convince you that the movie is actually better than it is.
Garden Of Evil is the kind of efficient and essentially mediocre movie which used to be a standby for BBC2 on Saturday afternoons and if you relax into it, it’s very therapeutic viewing. You don’t have to think about it - the visuals, the score and the stars do all the work for you. The more willing you are to sit back and surrender to it, the more enjoyable you’re likely to find it.
This is one of several second-league Fox westerns recently released on R2 DVD by Optimum. The transfer is generally very good. The anamorphically enhanced 2.55:1 picture is quite pleasing. The best aspect is the richly saturated colour, faithfully reproducing the gorgeous palate of the original. It’s a little soft and fine detail is frequently lacking. There are some artifacts present here and there but the overall effect is quite pleasing. It’s certainly an improvement on some of their releases from 2004, notably the disappointing Drums Along The Mohawk but it’s not the best of their recent releases. However, the joy of finally seeing this in its correct ratio is enough to make me a little more indulgent than I might have otherwise been.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono, which is a disappointment. The original Cinemascope presentation had a 4.0 soundtrack which particularly benefited Herrmann’s music score and the effect here is inevitably reduced. However, dialogue is clear and the music certainly makes its presence felt.
There are no extras at all. The film is divided into 12 chapter stops. No subtitles are offered, which is a shame.
I enjoyed watching Garden Of Evil and if you love Westerns as much as I do then it’s certainly worth considering a purchase. If you’re not a fan of the genre then you might prefer to spend your money elsewhere. I should point out that Fox are releasing this film in R1 later in the spring and it might be worth waiting to see what their transfer is like before buying the R2.