Monday, March 9, 2009

Garden of Evil (1954)

I have always been a big fan of the darker, more cynical and morally ambiguous Westerns of the 1950s: themes of lust, greed, vengeance, and murder played out against a sprawling CinemaScope panorama filmed in rich Technicolor. We often think of the 60s as the decade that saw the emergence of the Western anti-hero, but Westerns of the 1950s had already begun to depict the hard-bitten soldier of fortune with the dark past – always ready for a drink, a woman, or a fast buck, ever searching for something but never quite knowing what. Of this genre, one of my favorites is the lesser known Garden of Evil, directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper.

Garden of Evil starts quickly. A broken-down steamer anchors near a godforsaken Mexican town and lets off three gold-seeking Americans: Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark), and Luke Daly (Cameron Mitchell), and an American woman bursts into the saloon where they’re killing time. She’s Leah Fuller (played by earthy Susan Hayward), she’s dressed in a sweat-soaked blouse, and she’s looking for some men to help her save her husband who is trapped in a gold mine way back in the hinterland where no smart Mexican will go because of the Apaches – and it happens to be the “Moon of the White Man,” which to the Apaches means open season on pale faces. But the offer of two thousand dollars a man and Leah’s skimpy blouse are all that’s needed to entice our three soldiers of fortune, as well as a burly Mexican named Vicente (Victor Emmanuel Mendoza), to accompany Mrs. Fuller on the journey. It’s a simple story. They set off across a vast wilderness, fight over Leah Fuller, rescue Leah’s husband, succumb to the allure of gold, and then try to make it back to civilization, pursued and picked off one by one by the Apaches.

I like how the first third of the film turns the story into a perilous journey. We first see the five riders heading up a mountain side in an awesome location shot in Mexico; then cut to a matte shot of the forbidding mountains that must be crossed, and later cut to another matte shot of the narrow pass hugging an improbably sheer cliff. At one point they have to jump their horses over a gap in the ledge; gutsy Leah leads the way. When Vicente brings up the rear, his horse lands with a jolt that sends a frying pan flying out of his saddlebag. Clattering with every bounce, the pan tumbles down the slope, down and down, for a very long time, a wonderful establishment of the height of the pass. From this point on, no more mattes are needed as the riders cover a raw landscape, shot near Mount Paricutin in Mexico, of sprawling plains leading into a volcanic wasteland of jumbled lava rock piles and barren cinder cones, a majestically dark setting for a story about dark desires. Other location shots are taken in lush palm groves, suggesting the garden of the title. Along the way, it seems clear that the sardonic gambling man Fiske is after gold, and it’s clear what Daly wants when he forces himself on Leah but gets beaten into a weeping baby by Hooker. It’s unclear exactly what Hooker is after.

The pace slows down and the plot gets muddled in the film’s middle third when our adventurers rescue John Fuller (Hugh Marlowe) from the mine. Fuller seems to think Leah only came back for the gold. Meanwhile, greed rears its ugly head as Daly and Vicente grovel for nuggets. Fiske offers himself to Leah but gets a royal rebuff. “You’re nothing. Just nothing.” Wow! What a woman! Everybody wants something; Fuller just wants everyone to get lost and leave him with the mine. An elaborate ruse is concocted to mislead the Indians into thinking that the white men haven’t left yet, only to be negated when Hooker knocks Leah out, refusing to let her stay behind. Ah, now we know what he wants!

But the final chapter builds suspense as the Indians are revealed to us little by little. First, Hooker finds a feather in the cinders – an aesthetically framed shot. He also sees the ubiquitous smoke signal on the distant ridge. Later, during the return journey, just one Indian looks up over a rock; still later, Indians on a cliff blend with the color of the rock. Finally, in a stunning extreme long shot, we see Hooker, Fiske, and Leah riding across a wide plain as a band of Indians rides into the center of the frame, and another band follows them in the extreme distance. In the next shot, another extreme long, the two bands of Indians combine into a horde. During these shots, and throughout the film, a superbly dark and brooding Bernard Herrmann score intensifies the thrills, even adding a gripping tone to transitional shots of the characters simply riding from place to place. In fact, the entire film is supported by Herrmann’s eerie themes, some of them suggestive of threads later incorporated in his score for Vertigo (1958), another film about lust and dark motives.

I won’t be too specific about the final stand against the Indians, but you know it takes place on that high pass so wonderfully established by the falling frying pan and that a number of Indians will take the same plunge. Of course, Hooker ends up with Leah. Of course, the sun sets in the west, but it’s a struggling sun throttled by dark clouds over a merciless landscape that truly holds a garden of evil.

“If the earth were made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.”

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