Review: Garden of Evil (1954)

Dir. Henry Hathaway

Garden_of_Evil.jpgThere are many noteworthy aspects of Henry Hathaway’s Garden of Evil, although perhaps the most striking is the sight of Gary Cooper (otherwise doing his wearily gallant thing as usual) suddenly punching co-star Susan Hayward square in the face. Phrased as one of those well-meaning “for your own good”-type maneuvers, the act is nevertheless so alarming that it threatens to overwhelm our focus on the story itself.

Otherwise, for all its simplicity it is an engaging and thoughtful story. After being stranded somewhere in Mexico, three dubious fortune-hunters (Widmark, Mitchell and Cooper) accept the offer of local woman Leah (Hayward) to recover her husband (Marlowe) from a mine for a fee of two thousand dollars each. In order to earn their keep the men venture deep into Apache territory, proceeding to a place called the “Garden of Evil” —allegedly the province of malign spirits—all the while bickering and questioning both their own intentions and those of their female guide.

garden_of_evil02.jpgFilmed in lavish Cinemascope, a widescreen format intended to yank viewers from their TV sets by giving them the full measure of cinematic spectacle, Garden of Evil looks glorious. Additionally, Bernard Hermann’s score masterfully runs the gamut from brooding to dreamily elegiac, lifting the film’s themes of suspicion and sin out of the rich visual canvas. The story itself seems to lose some of its momentum in a few places, but the eye-popping visuals and momentous score easily rescue it from stagnation.

garden_of_evil01.jpgThe characterization is intriguing and misanthropic, and an atmosphere of tension is established between the three wanderers from the outset. Cooper’s performance feels off-kilter though, and a number of lines are delivered as if he were engaged in a different conversation from that of his interlocutor(s). This may be a deliberate strategy to build up an atmosphere of impenetrability or miscommunication around his enigmatic character. The effect, however, is ultimately awkward—almost as if he were somehow digitally inserted from another picture.

The Indians here are the faceless screechers from any number of Westerns; however, the film does ruminate on the ethics of the occupation and exploitation of their land. The sinister nature of fortune-seeking more generally is also scrutinized, and the travelers are haunted by a sense of their own moral inadequacy. The development of these themes, and particularly their stylish evocation through setting and score, make Garden of Evil suspenseful and rewarding viewing.  3.5 / 5