Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar wasn’t the only noteworthy psychological western of 1954; Henry Hathaway’s Garden of Evil easily matches it while also providing breathtaking Mexican location shooting and a first-rate star cast.
The Production: 3.5/5
Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar wasn’t the only noteworthy psychological western of 1954; Henry Hathaway’s Garden of Evil easily matches it while also providing breathtaking Mexican location shooting and a first-rate star cast. While the movie may lack a bit of action in its focusing on the personalities and interpersonal dynamics between its band of leading characters, the film is never less than involving entertainment buoyed by excellent performances and a magnificent background score by Bernard Herrmann.
Frantic Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) bursts into a Mexican cantina searching for men to help rescue her husband John (Hugh Marlowe) trapped in a mine collapse while digging for gold. With the promise of $1,000 each, four men volunteer: adventurers Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark), and Daly (Cameron Mitchell), and Mexican local Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza) who attempts to mark the trail so his compadres can later return to the site and strip more gold from its hills. While the rescue party is pretty much left alone on their journey to the mine, they know warring Apaches are a stone’s throw away waiting for their opportunity to ambush which will make escaping after the rescue operation very dicey indeed.
In his screenplay, Frank Fenton concentrates not on violent action but rather on the different reactions each of the adventurers has by being in the presence of the alluring Leah Fuller: for Daly it’s pure lust, for Hooker it’s admiration of her grit and determination, for Fiske it’s an educational exercise seeing how the woman can twist the men in any direction to get what she wants. Director Henry Hathaway keeps things moving at a steady pace (most memorable in the first half is the staging of a terrific fight between Hooker and Daly in which Daly keeps getting knocked into a campfire) ramping up the action in the second half when their lives are truly on the line as the journey turns rousingly from a road trip saga to a cat-and-mouse escape scenario. Hathaway certainly allows cinematographers Milton Krasner and Jorge Stahl Jr. to drink in the magnificent Mexican landscapes from expansive desert vistas to the hilly terrain and dangerous gorges they must traverse (and a stunning shot of volcanic residue that comes out of nowhere but is completely real and not a movie invention), and even if occasionally matte paintings are obvious in certain shots, it doesn’t take one bit away from the marvels of nature on widescreen display. Speaking of widescreen, Hathaway uses it wonderfully, from capturing the expansive locations to something as simple as cantina singer Rita Moreno early on warbling her seductive tunes by slowly maneuvering herself from left of frame to right without drawing undue attention to the coverage.
Gary Cooper once again takes quiet command of the screen in his every appearance, and in that fantastic fight with Cameron Mitchell’s Daly teaching the too-lustful lad a lesson without being vindictive or overly vicious and even offering reassurance and a helping hand after beating him handily. Susan Hayward shows her usual strength and resolve as the woman fighting for her man’s life even when he’s given up hoping for salvation. Richard Widmark’s character is the least well defined, and while he’s agreeably wry and has a couple of spotlight moments particularly in the second half, his character is most in need of a rewrite. Cameron Mitchell plays the headstrong Daly with his customary bluster while Hugh Marlowe gets to twist and turn rather agonizingly in the second half of the movie. Victor Manuel Mendoza doesn’t say much but makes a couple of scenes memorably affable (one priceless moment where he’s asked to cut a deck of cards is especially rewarding).
3D Rating: NA
The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.55:1 is faithfully reproduced in this beautiful 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is outstanding even in long shots, and while the color is very rich and very appealing, the early cantina scene shows skin tones a bit too hot and orangey, those problems not apparent at all in the remainder of the movie. Black levels are very impressive, and contrast has been consistently applied to produce a continually evocative picture. Engineers have cleaned up any age-related problems which might have been present making for what appears to be a brand new film. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The disc offers three different DTS-HD Master Audio sound mixes: the repurposed 5.1, the original 4.0, and a stereo 2.0 track. The 5.1 mix offers for me the best balance between the always discernible and completely directionalized dialogue, the appropriate atmospheric effects, and especially in presenting the magnificent Bernard Herrmann score to its best advantage. No age-related problems with hiss, crackle, or thumps are present.
Special Features: 5/5
Audio Commentary: film and music historians Nick Redman and Steven Smith along with composers John Morgan and William Stromberg spend the track discussing the music and career of composer Bernard Herrmann. While occasionally addressing other aspects of the movie (the actors, the cinematography) or discussing the studio system, the focus is on Herrmann’s contributions to this film and to movies, radio, television, and the concert stage during his lengthy career.
Isolated Score Track: the memorable Bernard Herrmann score is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0.
Travels of a Gunslinger: The Making of Garden of Evil (13:26, SD): the children of star Gary Cooper (Maria) and director Henry Hathaway (Jack) along with film historians Aubrey Solomon, David Thomson, and Rudy Behlmer discuss the two month shooting schedule of the film and the problems encountered by the filmmakers. Vintage audio recordings of Henry Hathaway and Cameron Mitchell are also utilized to tell the story.
Henry Hathaway: When the Going Gets Tough (11:41, SD): Hathaway’s son Jack remembers his tough, very professional father along with comments from movie historians Larry Swindell, Aubrey Solomon, David Thomson, and Alan Rode.
Susan Hayward: Hollywood’s Straight Shooter (6:55, SD): actress Susan Hayward’s reputation as a no-nonsense actress is recounted by historians David Thomson, Gene Arceri, and Aubrey Solomon. Clips from Rawhide are shown in conjunction with the discussion.
TV Spot Ad (1:05, SD)
Theatrical Trailers (2:54, 2:48, SD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains a couple of black and white and color stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s warm, involving analysis of the movie.
Not a typical shoot-‘em-up western of the period but rather a measured and interesting look at desperate individuals searching for their own individual objectives, Garden of Evil is one magnificent looking and sounding Blu-ray release! There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.