One title among the first wave of Cinemascope films from the studio which initiated the process, 20th Century Fox, was Garden of Evil (1954).
This western, which is set south of the border, stars Gary Cooper (1901-61 prostate cancer), Susan Hayward (1917-75 lung and brain cancer), Richard Widmark (1914-2008 long illness), and Cameron Mitchell (1918-94 lung cancer) and for some reason strikes me as a cult item.
It tells the tale of a few travellers, essentially soldiers of fortune, whose boat has travelled from the East coast of the United States, down past Cape Horn, but breaks down on the West coast of Central America.
While these men, which include Cooper and Widmark, retire to the local bar for a tequila… We learn that one is an ex-lawman played by Cooper, while Widmark is a gambler. The third character is Mitchell who is a bounty hunter.
After a song is performed at the bar by future Oscar winner for West Side Story, Rita Moreno (1931-), it is then that Susan Hayward turns up offering a large cash reward so save her prospector husband (actor Hugh Marlowe 1911-82 heart attack) who is trapped in a gold mine a few day’s ride inland. It is a place where Indians are active and don’t mind killing.
That’s the set up for Garden of Evil and it is beautifully directed in Technicolor by Henry Hathaway (1898-1985 heart attack). The screenplay by Frank Fenton (1903-71 stroke) doesn’t give the writer any credit for the story.
Fenton was a successful screenwriter in the 1930s and early 40s who wrote for The Saint and The Falcon film series starring George Sanders (1906-72 suicide by overdose). He then wrote a couple of critically acclaimed novels before returning to screenwriting on A-grade pictures in the late 1940s. He would be reasonably busy in the 50s, writing the South African set epic Untamed (1955) which again featured Hayward along with Tyrone Power (1914-58 heart attack).
While it is a diamond at the centre of Untamed, it is a gold mine of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) greed variety which is central to Garden of Evil.
The ‘garden’ of the movie is deep in Apache Indian territory where cathedrals lay spoilt and ruined and even the countryside is ruined by a past volcanic eruption.
The studio has to be commended for using Technicolor and Scope to capture the vision of this evil territory where the Indians are faceless demons who are there only to kill those who have trespassed.
The story for Garden of Evil is credited to lesser feature film writers: Fred Freiberger (1915-2003) who wrote the previous year’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) with several others and created the cult 70s kids tv show Korg: 70,000 B.C. (1974) and William Tunberg (1905-88) who helped write Disney’s Old Yeller (1957) but little else.
Fenton’s screenplay has been described as Hemingway-esque in terms of its character and dialogue being pared down and letting the landscape make a point of the title. And, yes, it is also a love story of sorts and opens with the sun setting – it will also end with the sun setting. Perhaps it’s the antithesis of Hemingway’s novel and the movie The Sun also Rises (1957) which had bored American writers in civilized Europe.
Garden of Evil’s love story concerns the end of a marriage, the kindling of a new love story between Hayward and Cooper and it is also a love story between Cooper and Widmark, not necessarily of the love that dare not speak its name variety, but a platonic one. But, yes, there is a sense of latent homosexuality in Widmark’s character, although he knows himself too well to allow such things to get in the way of real life.
It is Widmark who makes the ultimate sacrifice for Cooper at the end of the movie.
“I can speak two languages but I’m trapped in a country that isn’t one of them,” says Widmark, almost of his dual sexuality, when getting asked for a drink in the bar at the beginning with Cooper.
But Widmark has an eye for the ladies, even if his charms are meant for all, and he is looking in the corner of his eye at Cooper in terms of his own vanity of looking at a girl. Cooper is on the same level intellectually as Widmark while arrogant Mitchell causes trouble with the locals and proves himself to be street smart but slightly stupid.
“You know what you can do to me with a deck of cards…,” says Mitchell to Widmark, almost winking: “You can tell my fortune.”
Just as Widmark draws out the usual queen of hearts from his pack, in walks Hayward, in a bit of a dither, offering money for someone to help her. She is wearing a pistol hanging on her front pelvic area almost penis-like as she doubles her offer to take charge of the men.
“Only fools and idiots go up there,” says one Mexican and he tells Hayward he is both a fool and an idiot as Cooper, Widmark and Mitchell are also game for $2000 each.
It makes five of them with Hayward leading the horses beside steep ravines as Bernard Herrmann’s (1911-75 heart attack) moody music rouses and then underplays as the characters throw their brief lines of dialogue to one another… and then the music rouses again.
“Taking four men like us to a mountain of gold…,” says Widmark as the creek leads to a row of palm trees. The palms could almost be like fingers to count down to the group’s own Apocalyptic end… which will eventually be their destination of the barren landscape where the volcano has erupted many years earlier.
Hayward, apart from her prominent pistol, is dressed from head to toe with material and there is little sexuality exuding from her stern manner and slightly withdrawn and, for that matter, slightly drawn character.
Widmark gets the best lines, such as when Mitchell says he doesn’t like Widmark, only for Widmark to bitch slap him: “I’m a peculiar man… I don’t care,” he says ambiguously to Mitchell, who takes the slap without further provocation.
Cooper is poker faced as he clutches his pipe and talks to Hayward who is covering their tracks to the mine – so only she will know where it is.
“Without me, you’re lost,” she says and Cooper says he believes she really cares about a man’s life: “Especially in a gold mine.”
The greed is slowly growing as they approach the mine day by day… and Hayward is almost sinister in one slightly paranoid look she gives as she hears the Mexican laugh. The Garden of Evil is no laughing matter except for Widmark’s asides… as they enter a ruined town of stone where recent Indian campfires are still smoking ashes. It is the Moon of the White Man, a time of celebration of when the Indians wiped out the settlements.
The widescreen was a new process when Garden of Evil was made and it’s grandiose even when it just spreads the actors across the screen for a small chat to abuse one another.
Widmark tells Cooper he once thought Hayward was one of those women who sometimes comes along that fascinates men without trying or not knowing why…
“She tries… and she knows why,” Widmark then adds, with some sort of intuition, as another straight faced one liner is born. And we haven’t even got to the gold mine where Marlowe is pinned beneath a beam.
Mitchell tries to rape Hayward somewhere along the way, which leads to trouble…
Then Marlowe is found alive but with a badly broken leg, something which will slow the group down should they need to escape the Indians.
Such is the lust and the repulsion among the characters in the script and the symbolism of the broken marriage which collapsed along with the ceiling of the mine.
I find the journey fascinating as Mitchell cries after being humiliated by Cooper after the attempted rape, who also sits down and then gives Mitchell a fireside chat, telling Mitchell he didn’t kill him because he needs him.
They all need each other until they reach the mine and it is then that the greed overflows among the Mexican and Mitchell. Widmark is forever watching the rest of them…
“Mine belongs to you,” says Widmark about his mind and perhaps his love for Cooper after comparing Hayward to Salome collecting the head of John the Baptist in another one of those remarks and adds: “Two heads are better than one.”
It’s Hayward’s husband that will lose his head later in the movie when he is crucified upside down. It is Marlowe’s ultimate cross to bear while Cooper says such crosses can be beautiful.
“Go ahead, we’ll camp,” says Cooper and later Widmark lies asleep, his rifle erect beside him, although dwarfed by the vagina-like cave. Cooper walks away with his bigger looking rifle semi-erect and Hayward follows him into the night. That Cooper walks off with Hayward is Widmark’s cross to bear on this journey.
Earlier in the film, while the rest of the men lay their blankets fully on the ground like quilts, Widmark folds his in half and lays beside his, using the blanket for his cards to play solitaire. He is a man addicted to chance, or perhaps he knows the next card to be drawn… But his is a lonely and solitary existence, while Cooper is the Alpha male and real man who has taken control to ensure their survival in this dangerous wilderness.
The place where the mine is was once a town now covered with lava and only a church steeple remaining. It is a sacred place to the Indians of “evil spirits”. I guess it is no wonder that the Mexican and Mitchell break out the tequila upon their arrival at the gold mine. It is there that the group’s troubles really begin when they decide to take Marlowe and return to the coast. Hayward says she will stay and fend off the Indians but Cooper usurps her by punching her in the face in an unexpected moment… hopefully dragging her off like a caveman back to civilisation and safety for them all. We know that can never be!
The wisdom of knowing love, the heroism of that love between men and then the subliminal lust that serves as magnetism in the deep, hidden sexual pull between man and woman are some aspects of Garden of Evil.
There’s a moment when Marlowe realises that Cooper and Hayward are meant for each other before they leave the ruined village and the mine. It is when she goes to get the soup and coffee only for Cooper to grab her arm, almost pulling them together in a standing sexual position. “I’ll get it,” says Cooper. It is then that the poison inside Marlowe is released over lost love and the gold. Such is the tension from that premise within the movie.
Garden of Evil is a surprise cult item that had me hooked the first time but I didn’t really know why. But this simple tale told against a bold backdrop of rarely seen countryside or wilderness is colourful and moody among the spurts of violent language and action…
“We’ll all be murdered together,” yells Marlowe after Cooper somewhere along the way before his crucifixion.
The men and their reactions in Garden of Evil seem to all relate to Hayward including the climax where survivors Cooper and Widmark must decide who remains behind to stop the approaching Indians high in the mountains as the other escapes with Hayward.
“For once, something’s got nothing to do with you,” says Widmark, knowing the opposite as the cards are used to decide between himself and Cooper – who will stay. All the others are dead. It’s kind of like a who’s got the biggest dick competition, something Cooper would win and there’s even a large drooping rock formation which sits penis like behind Widmark’s shoulder as a reminder.
That Cooper abandons Widmark, possibly through the latter’s sleight of hand with the cards, means nothing as he returns to him.
“I’ve got to tell him,” says Cooper to Hayward as gunshots ring out in the distance, almost as if it’s love, of a sort, between the men. It’s definitely respect on Cooper’s part, as he says: “He’s a little better than I thought he was in every way.”
And Cooper rides off and leaves Hayward now that she’s “in the clear”. By the time Cooper gets to Widmark, he has an arrow through his heart as though cupid has struck in some sort of crazy way. It was a suicide mission.
“You always knew everything…,” says a dying Widmark to Cooper, about Cooper’s knowledge of women and himself, as they watch the sun about to set on Widmark’s life.
“Yeah, I cheated you,” Widmark says about the earlier drawing of the cards and he dies after telling Cooper to take Hayward and build a home and perhaps no longer live under the stars as men or soldiers do together. Widmark is clutching an Indian feather in his dead hand like a quill for the street poet that he was. Or just as a triumphant soldier over the Indians. He may have cheated Cooper but he didn’t cheat on him.
“The garden of evil… If the Earth was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dust,” says Cooper, poetically, to Widmark’s lifeless body in front of a setting sun which looks like a gold doubloon in a shot which obviously wasn’t back projected. It’s the real thing. And he rides off to join Hayward in the distance as the last light of the sun fades.
If a man finds a deep love and respect for another man who is a brother in arms, it will be to the death in such a place as the Garden of Evil.
The movie was remade in 1968 as a spaghetti western written by Hugo Fregonese and entitled Find a Place to Die. It stars Jeffrey Hunter and I have tried to watch it about half a dozen times but it still failed to grab me much of the time, except once for some reason and then I watched it again – and I lost interest once more! It is simply not a very good movie except for a good shoot-out sequence at the end.
I should single out Widmark in Garden of Evil, one last time, and say he was a vastly underrated actor. He was far more than just the giggling psychotic in Kiss of Death (1947) for which he was Oscar nominated. Just look at the almost domestic scene where he sums up Hayward’s heroic position of deciding to remain behind at the hut near the mine. Delivered with such irony! She sums him up in return as: “Nothing.” Just the look on Widmark’s passive face, as a result, is worth the price of admission.
The movie was filmed in early February of 1954 in Acapulco, Cuernavaca, and the rugged country around Uruapan west of Mexico City. The black volcanic sands surrounded Paricutin Mountain. Cooper pocketed $300,000 for his role.
Widmark commented about Cooper that he was the perfect workmate: “He was one of the best movie actors. He was underrated… He made his work look effortless – your saw no wheels turning – what any artist in any field tries to achieve.”
Garden of Evil is unjustly given one glance by many viewers and is unjustly forgotten as a result and yet it is one of the best films of the several that director Hathaway made with Gary Cooper. The same director would help John Wayne (1907-79 stomach cancer) score an Oscar for True Grit (1968). There must have been some kudos for the director with Garden of Evil as Hathaway tended to make mainly westerns after its production.