I want to start this review by saying right out that if
you have a particular interest in the Cinemascope movies of the mid-1950’s, and
if you are a film soundtrack fan, especially the music of composer Bernard
Herrmann, you want the new Blu-Ray of “Garden of Evil” (1954) from Twilight
Time. I can’t remember the last time I had such a good time watching a film and
going through the special features provided on this disc.
It’s not that “Garden of Evil” is such a great flick.
It’s not. It tries to be a profound examination of men’s lust for gold and a
beautiful woman, but ends up at best being a melodramatic potboiler that’s long
on talk and short on action. “If the world were made of gold, I guess men would
die for a handful of dirt,” Gary Cooper says at the end of the film. It’s a
great line. It sounds like something Bogart could have said at the end of
“Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” But the script by Frank Fenton (based on a
story by Fred Frieberger and William Tunberg) lacks the depth of the John
Huston classic. Nevertheless, “Garden of Evil” is still a highly enjoyable
Cooper plays Hooker, an American adventurer stranded in
Puerto Miguel, Mexico when the boat that was taking him to the California gold
fields develops engine trouble. Stranded along with him are fellow passengers Richard
Widmark, who plays Fiske, a card sharp, and Cameron Mitchell as Luke Daly, a
young hot head, who thinks he’s tough and good with a gun. The three Americans are
basically stuck with each other in Puerto Miguel as they try to figure out what
they’re going to do in Mexico while waiting six weeks for the boat’s engine to
That question is quickly answered in a cantina when Fiske
starts to tell Daly’s fortune using a deck of cards and holds up a red queen. Who
should walk in at that particular moment? None other than the red-headed queen
of Fox’s 1950s Cinemascope productions herself—Susan Hayward as Leah Fuller.
She storms into the place (as Hayward was often prone to do), saying she’ll pay
$2,000 in gold to any man who will come with her up into the mountains to
rescue her husband, who is trapped in a gold mine. Only one of the Mexican’s in
the bar, Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza) takes her up on her offer. The others are
too afraid of the Apaches up there. But our three intrepid Americanos can’t
resist the $2,000 and the fiery redhead who’s offering it and agree to go along
The journey is long and arduous. Hayward takes them up a
dizzying mountain trail that has a cliff with a drop of a thousand feet, give
or take a mile or two. Art directors Edward Fitzgerald and Lyle Wheeler came up
with some fantastic matte paintings for these scenes. The vistas that spread
out on the vast Cinemascope screen are breathtaking and add a weird touch of
fantasy to the film. I couldn’t help thinking of the scenes from the old Tarzan
movies, when the ape-man and his companions were climbing the Mutia Escarpment.
The use of the matte paintings to enhance the natural scenery of the Guanajuato,
Mexico location, I suspect was deliberate, to establish a demarcation between
the everyday world of Puerto Miguel and the mysterious Garden of Evil, where
the mine is located. The place was given its name by an old priest who, I
presume, knew about things like good and evil.
They arrive at the mine after several days’ journey and
find Leah’s husband, John Fuller (Hugh Marlowe), still alive. They dig him out
and set his broken leg in a splint. You’d think he’d be grateful, but it turns
out he’s a jealous insecure man, suspicious of the guys who came to his aid. He
thinks they want his gold and his wife. He’s partly right about that. Luke Daly
has already made unwanted advances and had to be knocked into submission by
Hooker. And neither Fiske nor Hooker have failed to notice Leah’s stunning
beauty, although they are more gentlemanly about it. Widmark as Fiske plays it
cynical, but in the end, he shows he’s not the cad he pretends to be and makes
a noble gesture on her behalf.
Cooper as Hooker, of course, is the upright man of honor
as always. At age 54 he was in a peak period of his career. He seemed to get
better as he got older. In films of that period such as “Vera Cruz,” “High
Noon,” and “Man of the West,” he gave some of his best performances, showing
that unusual combination of seasoned leather toughness and vulnerability. He
could do more with a squint or a twitch of the mouth than most other actors
could do with a page of dialogue. He dominates scene after scene just with his
mere presence, despite the star power of his co-stars.
Once the characters are finally all together at the mine,
the potboiler plot kicks in and the film gets a bit tedious, until smoke signal
appear on the rim and the Apaches move in. The rest of the story concerns
itself with the escape back through the mountains with Apaches in pursuit. Who
will make it? Who will die? And who ends up with Susan Hayward?
Watching Hayward, Widmark, and Cooper play against each
other is the kind of movie-going experience that cannot be equaled today. Veteran
director Henry Hathaway made good use of the wide Cinemascope lenses, shooting many
long takes with a stationary camera, filming the actors as though it was a stage
production. As film historian Nick Redman says in the Blu-ray’s commentary
track, by this time the studio had started using four-track magnetic tape to
record sound and there are moments that almost seem as if the actors are there
The entire commentary track with Redman, and film historians and music preservationists, John Morgan, Steven C. Smith, and William T. Stromberg is outstanding. Not the usual self-congratulatory drivel found on most discs. Their combined knowledge of film soundtracks in general, and the work of Bernard Herrmann in particular, is illuminating and really interesting. Have you ever wondered why the music soundtracks on so many movies made today all sound so much alike? These guys tell you exactly why, and it’s fascinating stuff.
Other features on this release include documentaries on the making of the film, director Henry Hathaway and star Susan Hayward. There are also a couple of theatrical trailers, and an isolated film score audio track. The music comes alive on this track, which uses the original cues that Herrmann recorded. There is also a collectible booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo.
Twilight Time has done an excellent job of transferring the film to BluRay. This limited edition (only 3,000 copies made) presents the correct 2.55:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio, and the specs on the back cover indicate that the original soundtrack has been transferred in 5.1 Dolby. However, my Sony sound system indicated that the audio is actually 7.1. The 1080p transfer is practically flawless. But a word of caution. When you watch this movie, no matter how big your home theater system is, you’ll wish you had a bigger screen. Altogether this is a prize-winner of a Blu-ray that will keep you watching and listening for hours. Highly Recommended.
John M. Whalen is the author of "Hunting Monsters is My Business: The Mordecai Slate Stories" . Click here to order the book from Amazon)