"I guess if the earth were made of gold, men would die for a handful of dirt."
When I was a young movie fan, back before I knew better, I thought Gary Cooper was a stiff. Sure, he was big, stoic and capable, but to me he seemed a wooden, inexpressive performer. I knew he was famous, for stuff like High Noon and Sergeant York, but I didn't get the hype. He didn't seem to bring the big, bold, authoritative flourishes I immediately noticed and responded to with stars like John Wayne, Lee Marvin, or Humphrey Bogart. Cooper seemed noble, yes, but also...well, also a little bit dulI.
I've since learned the error of my ways.
The older I get, and the more of Cooper's movies I see, the more I realize that there's a lot of depth there, lurking beneath the strong, silent surface. He's a much more interesting, complex actor than I first gave him credit for, and in his own quiet way, he commands the screen. He comes across as more amiable and contemplative than the likes of the Duke or Clint Eastwood, yet he's able to subtly convey a wily intelligence and sardonic wit. And, of course, there's that innate nobility thing, perhaps rivaled only by Gregory Peck in the ease with which it's displayed.
He's also surprisingly funny, when given half a chance. Whether playing off his image as the innocent professor who falls for brassy showgirl Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, fending off the advances of matriarch Marjorie Main in Friendly Persuasion or showing a facility for slapstick when trying to care for a baby in Casanova Brown.
Cooper's no muss, no fuss authority, shrewd thinking and easy way with short, pointed retorts are on full display in Henry Hathaway's Garden of Evil. He easily anchors this "tropical" western - though Richard Widmark tries his best to steal it out from under him.
A passenger ship docks at the sleepy Mexican town of Puerto Miguel. Three adventurers on their way to the gold fields in California - hotheaded bounty hunter Daly (Cameron Mitchell), gambler Fiske (Widmark) and ex-lawman Hooker (Cooper) - find themselves stranded for weeks, as the captain informs them that the ship must undergo lengthy repairs before it can resume its voyage.
Fiske, who fancies himself a close observer of human nature, can't figure the tight-lipped Hooker out, and that intrigues him. Daly he pegs right away, as the kind of short fuse that can quickly get everyone into trouble. While cooling their heels in a taverna, the men are approached by Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward), with a plea to come with her through remote, hostile Indian territory to rescue her husband, who's injured and trapped in a gold mine. Only one of the locals, a tough hombre named Vicente Madariaga (Victor Manuel Mendoza), dares to come to her aid. For the newcomers, it takes more than an appeal to their humanitarian natures.
Along with Daly, the party heads up through a treacherous mountain pass and across desert scrub and grasslands, Leah zealously trying to prevent anyone from marking their path. Leah pushes on hard, with a fierce, hard demeanor mingled with disdain for the others, whom she views as mere mercenaries. Despite this, or maybe because of it, her presence starts to affect the men around her. When they make camp on the first night, Fiske and Hooker watch Leah as she feeds and tends to her horse.
Even the cynical Fiske is not immune to her charms.
Unable to resist her allure, Daly tries to seduce Leah, but when she spurns him, he tries to rape her. Hooker intervenes. An enraged Daly pulls a gun on him, but Hooker faces him down, telling him that he knows all about Daly's past as a bountry killer who shoots his quarry in their beds, rather than face them like a man. He then proceeds to give Daly a brutal smackdown.
After several days the party reach the ruins of an old stone church, and Hooker sees the still-smoking embers of a fire left by some Indians.
More hard traveling, and Leah begins to ever so slightly thaw towards the principled Hooker. Finally, they reach the mine, and a distraught Leah is relieved to find her husband still alive, his leg pinned under a fallen beam inside the mine. The men get to work freeing him, and Hooker, with Vicente's help, sets his broken leg. When Fuller comes to his senses, he's less than thrilled to meet his rescuers, and is bitter towards Leah, claiming it was guilt, not love, that motivated her return. While Daly and Vicente help themselves to the couple's gold, the ever-watchful Hooker notes the Apaches gathering in the hills. They might have let the strangers ride into their territory unmolested, but they have no intentions of letting them get out alive. With the wounded Fuller in tow, the party makes a desperate attempt at escape, pursued on all sides by shadowy, implacable Apache warriors...
Director Henry Hathaway was, by this stage of his career, a veteran of westerns, crime pictures and adventure films, such as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The House on 92nd Street, Kiss of Death, Niagara and Prince Valiant. His trademark solid craftsmanship is evident throughout Garden of Evil. The script by Frank Felton (from a story by Fred Frieberger and William Tunberg) is full of great lines, most of them given to Widmark, who gives them all a nice, sarcastic burn (Widmark: "Say, Hooker, before you became an idiot lookin' for gold, what were you?" Cooper's response: "An idiot without it.")
Most of the focus is on the conflict between the characters, as they slowly size each other up on the way to a violent final conflict with the Apache. The film starts out in such a way as to make one expect a sort of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, "gold bringing out the worst in humanity" kind of movie, but when all is said and done, the lust for gold plays only a small part in the proceedings; in fact, despite their presumed mercenary natures, Hooker and Fiske seem far more interested in Leah than in any financial reward. The film ultimately unfolds as a study of the sort of men and women who would embark on such a dangerous enterprise in the first place, about what makes these adventure-seekers tick, and how they handle themselves under pressure.
The lush Mexican locations give the film a look unique to the western genre. Hathaway eschews close-ups, instead framing his shots to maximize the oh-so-wide Cinemascope screen. Bernard Hermann provides a typically robust score.
Cooper is in fine form, utterly convincing as a man of clear thinking and hard-won experience, a natural if unassuming leader. He was 53 here but wears his years well, and comes across as mature yet still a physical force to be reckoned with. Widmark matches him with a charming, loquacious turn as the philosophical gambler; we're never quite sure, until the very end, just how far we can trust him. It's another of the underappreciated Widmark's assured, edgy performances.
Susan Hayward was a strong presence on screen and brings her customary fierceness to the part. However, the film seems a trifle unsure how it really feels about Leah Fuller, and we're left wondering about her true feelings and motivations. There seems to be some truth to her husband's bitter accusations of guilt over love. She keeps an emotional wall up throughout the movie and while Hayward's flinty portrayal keeps her always interesting and complex, in the end her character remains a bit of a cipher (which is perhaps intentional - the archetypal goddess figure that leads men to their doom, or salvation). Hayward was 37 when she made Garden of Evil, well past her ingenue phase, and her maturity and powerful personality make her a good match for her rugged male co-stars. While perhaps a bit too modern to fit 100% comfortably in a western setting, she remains believably hard-bitten, ready to go toe-to-toe with any man.
Cameron Mitchell was no stranger to westerns; he played a similar hot-head alongside Clark Gable in the excellent The Tall Men, and of course is perhaps best known for co-starring in The High Chaparral TV series, as the boistrous and lovable Buck Cannon. The very busy and prolific Mitchell was an accomplished actor and perfectly capable of taking a lead role when given the opportunity, generally having to head to Europe to do so (such as in Knives of the Avenger and Minnesota Clay), or in later exploitation fare like 1978's infamous The Toolbox Murders. He's not given as much to do here as he deserves, but makes the most of it. Hugh Marlowe comes late to the party but ably communicates John Fuller's resentment and self-destructiveness. I don't know much about Victor Manuel Mendoza; appropriately enough, nearly all his lines are in unsubtitled Spanish. His Vicente is a big bear of a man, quick to laugh, brave and proud. Look also for a young Rita Morena in a brief bit at the beginning, as a saucy saloon singer who makes eyes at the new gringo arrivals.
Many contend that the 1950s were the high point of the movie western, and it's hard to argue with that. Garden of Evil is yet another swell example in that decade's favor, with enough exotic flair and a whiff of "lost world" pulp adventure to make it stand apart from the pack. But it's really the knowing back-and-forth between Cooper and Widmark, two old pros relishing a juicy script, that makes a lasting impression.
DVD Note: Garden of Evil is available on a handsome disc in the 3-film Fox Western Classics Collection, along with Rawhide (also with Susan Hayward) and The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck, though a sharper Blu-Ray release would be most welcome.
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