Monday 9 February 2015

Movie Review: Garden Of Evil (1954)

Despite a stellar cast, stunning scenery and a potentially intriguing premise, Garden Of Evil stumbles into a narrative morass and withers into insignificance.

A steamboat carrying a group of men towards the California gold rush runs into engine trouble and is forced to dock at a small Mexican port for repairs. On board is the quiet and mysterious Hooker (Gary Cooper), professional gambler Fiske (Richard Widmark) and the excitable Luke Daly (Cameron Mitchell). At the local tavern they meet the desperate Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward), offering large sums of money for the services of men willing to help rescue her husband, trapped under rubble at a remote mine site.

Hooker, Fiske and Daly and local Mexican Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza) join Leah on the dangerous multi-day journey to the mine through Apache territory, including a narrow mountain pass. Once at the mine they rescue the trapped John Fuller (Hugh Marlowe), but his injuries mean the journey back will be even more hazardous.

Directed by Henry Hathaway from a Frank Fenton script, Garden Of Evil simply fails to ignite. All the ingredients are ready, but the mix is out of balance, and ultimately the film descends into endless and repetitive scenes of the group riding, camping, and on the return journey, taking turns dying as the numbers are whittled down.

Garden Of Evil is an attempt to draw rich and sometimes philosophical characters, consumed by greed, lusting after a beautiful woman, challenged by the terrain and guarding against each other while fending off hostile opponents (in this case Apache Indians). The themes are drawn from The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, but the execution is wholly unconvincing. Hooker and Fiske manage some clever exchanges of dialogue, but otherwise the characters are flat and stuck on a single note, the tension between them contrived, with Hooker easily the smartest, toughest, and coolest.

Other fundamental flaws include a difficult to believe negative dynamic between Leah and John Fuller, the latter quick to castigate his wife after she went to great lengths to save his life; and an incomprehensible decision to embark on the return journey soon after arriving at the mine site, the script seemingly ill at ease with anything except the group riding through the terrain.

Which leaves the scenery to admire, and Garden Of Evil is frequently visually stunning. Filmed in Mexico and brought to life in CinemaScope and Technicolor, Hathaway makes excellent use of spectacular mountain passes, lush vegetation, sunrises, sunsets, and silhouettes, and the camera angles innovatively emphasize both the beauty and dangers offered by the secluded locales.

Beautiful to look at but carelessly throwing away its promise, Garden Of Evil is overgrown with weeds.

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