Garden of Evil (1954)
Dir: Henry Hathaway - Cast: Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Susan Hayward, Cameron Mitchell, Hugh Marlowe, Rita Moreno, Victor Manuel Mendoza
Today this is one of Henry Hathaway's least known westerns, but it was a prestigious affair back then. It was one of Fox's first cinemascope productions and also one of their first movies with stereophonic sound; for the occasion a stellar cast was hired and Bernard Herrmann (best known for his collaborations with Hitchcock) was asked to write a score.
Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark and Cameron Mitchell are three fortune-hunters stranded in a Mexican port while the ship that is supposed to bring them to the Californian Gold Rush is being repaired. While spending some time in the saloon (watching Rita Moreno performing a song and a dance), they're asked by a American woman (Hayward) to follow her into the mountains, where her husband has been trapped in a goldmine after a landslide. They quickly get to the mine, but it is situated on sacred Indian ground, and on the way back, they're ambushed by the Indians ...
The grandeur of the cinematography often seems to overpower the story-line. Garden of Evil is beautifully looking, but also dead-slow, almost coming to a halt while the camera patiently, all to patiently scrutinizes those beautiful Mexican vistas (1). Luckily the characters are well-drawn and seem tailor-made for the wonderful ensemble of actors. Both Cooper and Widmark are close to their very best as, respectively, the strong-willed, honorable adventurer and the slightly shady card sharp, the first one who senses there's something wrong with the woman who hired them. Some have sensed a homoerotic element in Widmark's performance (I must say it crossed my mind too). Cooper and Widmark have a laconic, but meaningful conversion when watching Hayward offering lumps of sugar to her horse:
Widmark: "Look, you see that? Before this is over, you'll be just like that horse, eatin' right out of her hand."
Cooper: "Maybe it isn't the woman. Maybe it's the sugar."The broody characters and their uneasy relationships are far more interesting than the action, which is sparse and not very spectacular. The Indians are called Apaches, but look more like Mohawks or (as someone ironically stated) like students moonlighting as extras. Bernard Herrmann's score veers from playful and inventive to loud and overbearing, and occasionally becomes so obtrusive that it's hard to concentrate on what's happening on-screen. It was the first of only two western scores (the second one being The Kentuckian, made the next year).
If the story sounds familiar to spaghetti western fans, it should: it was adapted into a spaghetti western called Find a Place to Die (Joe, cercati un posto per morire!) by Giuliano Carnimeo. A few changes were made to the story, but the premise was left intact and several scenes were copied, among them the early scene in the saloon (Daniela Giordano replacing Rita Moreno)
Note:(1) According to IMDB it was entirely shot on location in Mexico, but I thought I spotted a few painted backgrounds.