• Garden Of Evil

    Released by: Twilight Time Releasing
    Released on: May, 2016.
    Director: Henry Hathaway
    Cast: Gary Cooper, Rita Moreno, Hugh Marlowe
    Year: 1954
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Film:

    Three hopeful prospectors are stranded in a sleepy Mexican village when their ship is put out of commission by engine trouble. There is a handsome young man named Fiske (Richard Widmark) who is quick with a deck of cards and wants to try his luck in mining. An earnest intensity betrays the shifty character of Luke Daly (Cameron Mitchell) and one gets the sense that he’s the kind of man who thinks that the ends justify the means. Finally, there’s the no-nonsense stoicism of Hooker (Gary Cooper); he’s about a dozen years older than the other two men and it shows in how he handles himself. These three men expect to spend a couple of weeks killing time by fishing and drinking mezcal at a local cantina until their boat gets repaired.

    The entrance of Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) interrupts their stopover; she is a beautiful and desperate woman who offers big money to anyone that will help her rescue her husband John (Hugh Marlowe) from a collapsed gold mine. After being rebuffed by most of the locals, Hooker, Fiske and Daly decide to take Leah up on her offer. The four of them are joined by a Mexican named Vincente Madariaga (Victor Mendoza) and they all set off on a days-long rescue mission. In addition to a treacherous territory and growing tension amongst the group, there is the constant threat of attack by a group of Apaches that are bent on killing any white man they come across.

    That’s the set-up of Garden of Evil, an excellent 1954 Western that should please fans of the genre. The film is skillfully directed by Henry Hathaway (Kiss of Death, True Grit) and the decision to film the picture on-location in Mexico was a smart one. This was an early CinemaScope picture (which had only been introduced by 20th Century Fox the previous year) and the lush technicolored landscape adds immensely to its appeal. Another significant aspect to Garden of Evil is that it represents the only cinematic Western in Bernard Herrmann’s career and it confirms that he was adept at conforming his sensibilities to whatever genre he was working on at the time. He delivers a superb score that avoids any of the glaring clichés of the genre and is particularly impressive in the film’s brooding, quieter moments.

    The rescue narrative affords the filmmakers ample opportunity to exploit the growing conflict among the central characters. The star of the picture is undoubtedly Susan Hayward, who commands a tough-as-nails presence as the lone female lead amongst maelstrom of testosterone. There’s ample sexual tension on display as Leah must battle against the lascivious advances of Daly and the constant threat that Vincente is scheming to steal the gold once they reach the mine. As a virtuous gunslinger, Gary Cooper can play this kind of role in his sleep; an aside to Hayward about being a retired sheriff in his former life immediately calls to mind the role that Cooper had just played in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon.

    Although there is plenty of familiar tropes on display in Garden of Evil, there are some interesting variations on familiar themes. For instance, one is tempted to criticize the overtly-simplistic treatment of the Apaches, who always remain a faceless, arrow-firing army throughout the picture. However, it can be argued that Garden of Evil is ultimately a morality tale about greed and thus the Apaches are yet another manifestation of a hostile environment that threatens the lives of the main characters. Looking at the film through this perspective almost makes Garden of Evil function as a Western variation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with gold substituting for ivory and the Apaches standing in for the Africans in that novella. Following this conceit, the central Kurtzian struggle for the soul of a man centers on Fiske, and his redemptive character arc is the moral heart of the film. The conclusion of the film amplifies the metaphysical themes that are promised by the title.


    Twilight Time’s blu-ray disc of Garden of Evil features an impressive 1080p high definition transfer of the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.55:1. As mentioned in the above review, this was an early CinemaScope production, and the filmmakers make ample and impressive use of the widescreen frame. The transfer is a thing of beauty and the brief moments where the image lapses into softness only serves to illustrate how great the vast majority of the film looks. There’s tons of detail throughout and the film grain is natural. A winner.

    Twilight Time does an impressive job on the audio front and this is evident in the main English 5.1 DTS-HD audio mix. The surround sound creates immersion during the action scenes and your subwoofer amplifies the bass in Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic score. There is also a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix as well. Finally, there is an Isolated Score Track that is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 (see below).

    There are some excellent extras that are carried over from the Twentieth Century Fox’s DVD release. The main special feature is an audio commentary with Nick Redman, John Morgan, Steven Smith and William Stromberg. The track is heavily focused on Bernard Herrmann’s contribution to the film (Redman calls it a “master class” at the end and you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with him) and it’s a must for fans of the composer. Do yourself a favor and follow up this informative commentary by checking out the Isolated Score Track and you’ll come to a greater appreciation for Herrmann’s innovative work on this film. Julie Kirgo does a superb job on her liner notes and characterizes the film as an example of the kind of high quality product audiences could expect from the studio system at the time. There are also a series of featurettes that focus on director Henry Hathaway, star Susan Hayward and the making of the film. Finally, there is a TV spot and two theatrical trailers.

    The Final Word:

    Although it’s obviously not the greatest Western of the era, Garden of Evil is a solid choice for fans of the genre that features excellent performances by Cooper and Hayward, and unique score from legendary composer Bernard Herrmann. The film is less notable for its action sequences than for the tension that it impressively sustains in its first half. Highly recommended.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!