Bernard Herrmann music + weird landscapes = Nirvana. This big-star western tale has an unbreakable story but terrible dialogue and weak characters. Yet for fans of adventure filmmaking it’s a legend, thanks to a thunderous Bernard Herrmann music score that transforms dozens of uncanny, real Mexican locations into something other-worldly.
Garden of Evil
1954 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 100 min. / Ship Date May 10, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, Hugh Marlowe, Cameron Mitchell, Rita Moreno, Víctor Manuel Mendoza.
Cinematography Milton R. Krasner, Jorge Stahl Jr.
Art Direction Edward Fitzgerald, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor James B. Clark
Original Music Bernard Herrmann
Special Effects Ray Kellogg
Written by Frank Fenton, Fred Freiberger, William Tunberg
Produced by Charles Brackett
Directed by Henry Hathaway
“The Garden of Evil. If the world was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.”
Before I realized what was so great about Henry Hathaway’s Garden of Evil, I once judged my interest in it as a guilty pleasure. Look in Leonard Maltin or any book on westerns and you’ll discover that this unique picture doesn’t occupy a very high roost in critical circles. Savant saw the movie for the first time on a flat B&W TV set with mono sound, and has never seen it on a screen; it wasn’t until a cablecast in 2004 or so that I could finally see it in something approximating its original CinemaScope proportions. In many ways a simply lame western, talky and action-challenged, Garden nevertheless has unique qualities that make it endlessly watchable. The primary attraction is the music score by Bernard Herrmann, which does an amazing job of bringing the picture to life, giving it legs, and creating an exciting, almost fantastic atmosphere.
The expensive Garden of Evil is one of the early CinemaScope extravaganzas made when the process was projected at an ultra-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Darryl Zanuck’s gamble on the new format was such a make-or-break proposition that some of the early releases were filmed on a lavish scale. Fox sent a full company to Mexico and tied up three big stars for months to ensure that something Big and Different would result.
The show takes place in Gold Rush days. Stranded in the Mexican town of Puerto Miguel, gold-hunters on the way to California are hired by the desperate Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) to rescue her husband. John Fuller (Hugh Marlowe) is trapped in his gold mine in Apache territory, three days’ ride inland. Taking Leah up on her offer are gunslinger Luke Daly (Cameron Michell), card sharp Fiske (Richard Widmark), ex-lawman Hooker (Gary Cooper) and local vaquero Vicente Madariaga (Víctor Manuel Mendoza). They move through a wide variety of landscapes, crossing palm forests and a vertiginous cliff side, to finally reach the mine in an area buried in volcanic rock. By this time the base desires of the men have been revealed. Daly and Madariaga steal gold from Fuller’s mine, Fiske begins to think that Leah is interested in him and the injured John has decided that his wife only wants the gold. Only the quiet Hooker keeps a level head. Indian signs around the mine bring bad news: the area is sacred territory, and the Apache have no intention of letting anybody escape alive.
Garden of Evil is a potentially great film with an almost un-killable story. Four men follow a beautiful woman into a forbidden land and are destroyed by their own vices. The original plan was to film in the United States but Zanuck must have remembered the exotic, other-worldly tone of the end of Captain from Castile, a Fox picture made in Mexico seven years before. A volcanic eruption just happened to coincide with the filming, favoring Castile with some unique visuals; Zanuck realized that Garden of Evil‘s quasi-allegory could benefit greatly from the same weird Mexican locations.
Garden of Evil is a riveting experience, but not in the conventional way. It’s an operatic marriage of music and landscape, something that wouldn’t soak into westerns until the arrival of the Italian Sergio Leone, ten years later. It takes real Hollywood star power to keep the slow and talky screenplay on its feet. Widmark’s Fiske evaluates and psychoanalyzes his trail-mates almost non-stop, violating the western rule that prefers that character be established in action rather than words. Worse, much of Fiske’s non-stop blather sounds like story department character analysis paraphrased as dialogue:
“Hi, I’m a student of cards and human nature and you’re an interesting person that I want to learn more about!”
Gary Cooper’s Hooker is not well established. Although he has come around the Cape Horn, presumably from the East, Hooker is obviously already an expert on everything Mexican and Indian. I guess it’s his second time around for Western adventuring. Most Cooper films establish his moral position by letting other characters praise and admire him, while he personifies quiet integrity with his actions and body language. This show burdens him with portentous dialogue that serves an undeveloped Bible allegory. Yes, Leah tempts the men into a savage Garden of Eden where they’re judged for their sins. One of them ends up crucified upside-down on a stone cross. For some reason, Cooper is saddled with dialogue passages that at best are trivial and at their worst are head-scratching non-sequiturs:
“A cross isn’t a bad thing to see. It can be a beautiful thing. And everybody has one. That was his.”
Or, “Somebody always stays. All over the world, somebody gets it done.” The chatter is pretentious and the message obscure.
The other characterizations are thin. Fine Mexican actor Víctor Manuel Mendoza carried solid parts in Luis Buñuel’s Susana, Delmer Daves’ Cowboy and Robert Parrish’s The Wonderful Country. His Vicente is a crude giant with an infantile sense of humor. Fox’s contract player Cameron Mitchell behaves as he does in half the films he’s in around this time: his Daly threatens the leading lady with rape, driving her into the hero’s waiting arms. All Cooper need do to claim Hayward is to remain detached and calm, in other words, be ‘Coop.’
The fine actor Richard Widmark is wasted as Fiske, who is little more than a tiresome philosophy book. Widmark wanted out of his Fox contract so badly that he took a tiny part in the big western Broken Lance, released the same year. Hugh Marlowe’s husband Fuller is a suicidal grumpus, a fairly good part for him. We’re surprised when, after riding for three days, the rescue party finds that the man being rescued hates his wife.
We don’t believe Fuller when he insists that Leah is Bad News, and instead assume that he’s gone wacky in the head. Susan Hayward is quite good as the embittered Leah, convincing us that she’s sick of men and all their games. But neither the script nor her performance do much with the idea that Leah is a greedy Eve in the Garden, luring men to their deaths.
The film’s last major problem is its Indians, which are simply silly. They’re supposed to be Apaches living out in the scorching elements, but they have Mohawk hairdos and go bare-chested like the Eastern Indians of a century before. Unlike the later realistic Apaches of Ulzana’s Raid and Major Dundee, these Indians average six feet in height! If Hathaway wanted them to seem semi-demonic, able to strike out of nowhere, he should have kept them more hidden. As it is, they’re pretty useless — with only five gringos to eliminate, these invincible phantom warriors instead allow themselves to be shot down by the score. They do take some pretty hairy-looking stunt falls, off of high rocks.
Director Henry Hathaway excels on the dimension of Garden of Evil that really comes to life, its fantastic sense of place. Good backgrounds can’t save a tepid picture but that’s exactly what happens in this case. Garden of Evil is all landscape. Only two or three scenes take place in interiors, and the rest of the movie explores jungle forests and craggy volcanic settings that would be appropriate for One Million Years B.C.. A cathedral is buried up to its bell tower in volcanic rock, giving the impression of an entire town swallowed up by the inhospitable land.
The unreal-yet-genuine scenery has an impact greater than that found in modern CGI movies. The movie stars are indeed there, riding across ground made entirely of black volcanic cinders. Between the trees we can see the cone shape of a dormant volcano, surely the same one that was erupting in Captain from Castile. It’s all real. There’s a difference one can feel.
The highlight of the movie is pure pulp fantasy filmmaking, a treacherous passage across a cliff face with a thousand-foot drop. It’s one of those impossible movie settings, so extreme that one would expect the riders to slowly walk their horses. They instead trot happily, or take the turns at a gallop. At one point horses and riders must vault a gap in the pathway ledge, like a steeplechase in the sky.
Special effects do figure in these scenes. Carefully planned mattes create the best views of the cliff face, filling in the long drop below the actors. The scale is genuinely awesome, with the riders trotting up the deliriously risky-looking path. Some of the rolling hills in the distance look a bit painterly but overall the mattes are very convincing. The effects men even use stop-motion animation, when one unlucky Apache takes an unscheduled plunge down the painted cliff side. Finally seen in HD, we realize that a lot more of the movie’s atmosphere is created with matte paintings, even the opening shot of the boat in the bay. Perhaps that’s the fantasy appeal of Garden of Evil — this much detail hasn’t been given to outsized exotic scenery since the days of King Kong.
Again, Krasner’s CinemaScope photography invests all of this with a giant sense of scale. The run-up to the cliffs takes place in vast wide shots showing the three heroes fleeing mounted bands of Indians across a real, rocky landscape that resembles the back of a giant crab. The scale is so large, the horses look like gnats. The tilted slopes covered with giant boulders are real, yet look like they were painted by Salvador Dalí. On the cliff face Hathaway uses steep angles to suggest the height, proving that CinemaScope isn’t limited to the horizontal X Axis. It’s old-fashioned Big Sky wonderment, augmented with excellent effects.
All the amazing scenery would be just a travelogue if it weren’t for the best thing in the picture, the powerful music of Bernard Herrmann. The exciting, muscular score gives the show a stylistic foundation and smoothes over weak dialogue scenes. Much as Herrmann gave dimension and ‘magic’ to the fantasy worlds of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, he almost single-handedly brings life to Garden of Evil. I don’t think what we see would function if it were not for the knockout music score; Herrmann must have considered the show an empty canvas waiting to be transformed. Five years later, producer Charles Brackett would assign Herrmann to bring an even more fantastic odyssey to life, in Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Variety’s original review thought that Herrmann’s music overwhelmed the movie, which we think is the best thing that could happen to Garden of Evil. Cooper’s final dialogue line, spoken in front of a blazing Technicolor sunset, should have been the film’s only piece of verbal philosophy:
“The Garden of Evil. If the world was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt.”
The beautiful shot is one of several nearly undetectable blue screen traveling mattes; it was used as an example in Raymond Fielding’s The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography, a book used as a textbook at UCLA (above).
Garden of Evil shows Hollywood artisans and artists redeeming a movie with great technical contributions. Seeing it back in the day must have been a sensory delight, on a huge screen in Technicolor and four-track stereo.
A few more odd notes on the movie: A young Rita Moreno dances and sings in the café in Puerto Miguel. It’s Moreno’s 17th movie but she wouldn’t really be noticed until 1956’s The King and I. The boat captain at the beginning is Fernando Wagner, who fifteen years later would play the German advisor Mohr, in The Wild Bunch.
Apparently the dialogue that directly refers to a Garden of Evil was cut before release. The late Brad Arrington was an enthusiastic Bernard Herrmann fan and long-time Savant correspondent. In 2008 Brad wrote to tell me that, had I paid attention during the trailer, I would have figured it out for myself:
“Hi Glenn — The answer to your question regarding the scene with the priest from Garden of Evil is this: The travelers are just leaving Puerto Miguel to begin their journey when they happen upon an old priest, the one we saw earlier at the door to the cantina. He warns them against going inland, no matter what their reasons may be. Curiously, a snippet of this scene can actually be viewed in the film’s trailer. A music cue for the scene was cut from the final release also, but is included in John Morgan and Bill Stromberg’s re-recording of the score on the Marco Polo label. The brief cue uses Herrmann’s Garden of Evil theme, but played in the extreme low register of the orchestra.”
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of Garden of Evil is an excellent presentation of a film that’s been on the Savant ‘please please’ Blu-ray list since the format was first launched. We were told long ago that the film’s surviving printing elements are in rocky shape, and Fox has seemingly worked miracles on the transfer. Most of the movie truly ‘pops,’ putting the extra detail into the image that makes those glorious Mexican locations come alive. It also allows us to better appreciate the special effects — on many mattes the trick-work is still almost undetectable. We can tell that many scenes required extreme color work to achieve a good image. Some scenes look a little contrasty, but never too harsh, and I noticed at least one scene that appeared to be sourced a generation or two away from the rest of the film material. And every once in a while we see a slight color shift as opticals cut in for dissolves. Yet, transferred at its full 2.55:1 widescreen ratio, Garden of Evil looks phenomenal.
The audio fares even better. Nick Redman approaches many projects from a music POV, and here we’re given several different mixes, in 5.1. 4.0. 2.0, etc. The clarity and depth of Bernard Herrmann’s blaring fanfares and thundering passages are really stirring… I know I’ll be playing this with just the Isolated Score Track, as I do sometimes with Twilight Time’s excellent disc of Jerry Goldsmith’s Our Man Flint.
The other extras have been recovered from Fox’s 2008 DVD release. Redman, biographer Steven Smith and composers, orchestrators and classic film music restoration specialists John Morgan and William Stromberg participate in a commentary discussion that goes beyond simple praise to offer some welcome insights about both the music and its composer. Fox also produced three featurettes. A Making of… piece has some interesting content but then reports several anecdotes from Fox’s old publicity sheets, about fights on the set and Susan Hayward rescuing a Mexican child from falling off the cliff. It’s old-school Hollywood flackery. We’re told that the stars jumped their horses over real gaps on a real cliff, which is pure baloney. It’s not good when interview subjects are made to say things like, “Gee, that could have happened, I guess…”
The piece on Henry Hathaway (When The Going Gets Tough…) is better, but it doesn’t make a strong enough case for the under-appreciated director. A third featurette gives star Susan Hayward’s career a light going-over. The featurettes do benefit from some quality input, including interviews with Gary Cooper’s daughter and film historian Alan Rode.
A TV spot and two original trailers round out the video extras. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes do what they can to generate interest in the trio of photogenic stars; it’s not easy to defend this movie as a dramatic achievement. I should think that this release might be a sell-out, what with the Bernard Herrmann factor in play. For so many years it seemed that Garden of Evil was nowhere to be seen or heard. I put an original poster (above) on my wall to remind me of the show. Hayward’s petite body is almost as exaggerated as the oversexed artwork in ‘headlight’ comics of the time.
I guess there are still a few more desirable Fox CinemaScope & stereo sound extravaganzas to be had from 1954. The first that comes to mind is the Richard Widmark — Samuel Fuller Cold War thriller Hell and High Water. Now that’s a real guilty pleasure!
by Glenn Erickson
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Garden of Evil Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good as a drama, but as a fan experience Marvelous
Sound: Excellent +
Supplements: Isolated music track, commentary (see above), three featurettes (see above), TV spot, trailers, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson