On first viewing, Garden of Evil seemed a talky and world-be-philosophic mess of a western with gorgeous cinematography, a good cast and a fantastic score by Bernard Herrmann. But I still enjoyed it and after discussing it with my sister, we concluded that although the screenplay is still a bit confused, much of what the characters say is really a smokescreen and should be discounted. As Gary Cooper says in the film, “after all a man says, it’s what he does that counts.” The second time we viewed it, we tried to ignore most of the dialogue and focus mostly on what the characters did.
Three men – Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark), and Daly (Cameron Mitchell) are stranded in a small Mexican village for three weeks. While they are having a few drinks and wondering what they are going to do with themselves in such a sleepy town for twenty-one days, excitement suddenly comes through the barroom doors when Leah Fuller (Susan Hayward) bursts in and offers to pay gold to any man who will accompany her to rescue her husband, who is trapped in their fallen gold mine shaft.
The trouble is that the mine is deep in Apache territory and few people are willing to risk the danger, even for thousands of dollars of gold. But Hooker, Fiske and Daly, along with a local villager, Vicente (Victor Manuel Mendoza), agree to come with her, presumably for the gold. As the men follow Leah to the mine, they begin to react to her in various ways while she single-mindedly pursues her goal. Daly is panting over Leah , Fiske simply watches her and makes ironic comments about the condition of humankind, while Hooker tries to keep the peace and Vicente leaves marks behind so that he can find his way back to the mine. Things boil over when Daly attempts to rape Leah and then picks a fight with Hooker. Fiske has by this time concluded that Leah is a siren who is deliberately using her sex appeal to tie the men up in knots.
When they finally do arrive at the mine, her husband (Hugh Marlowe) is still alive, but has a broken leg and the days spent in the mine haven’t done his mind any good, either. Instead of being grateful that his wife went to all the trouble she did for him, he lashes out in anger at her. It’s all her fault, he says, that he’s in this mess in the first place. And like Fiske, he considers her a siren who has all the men in thrall to her. All the while, Leah keeps doing her thing, keeps trying to save him, nurse him. She never stops to apologize, never explains herself, never defends herself. She’s like the laconic, taciturn male leads that so often populate westerns. It’s the men who are actually chatty in this one. Even Gary Cooper has more to say than she does.
The dialogue is often cited as a weakness in the film. People talk in a stylized, oblique way that rarely seems to further the story. All the men seem to be able to do initially is talk while Leah leads them on. Fiske, in particular, likes to make pronouncements about people and their motivations. Sometimes he’s right, but other times he’s wrong. He’s looking for deep motivations while most people are exactly as they seem, especially Leah Fuller. Their nature just gets magnified by the journey, the pressure, the danger and the gold.
Two men die for love, two die for gold, and two people live (the reader can probably guess which two). Daly is the posturing young coward who lusts for gold and women. Vicente is interesting, because his primary motivation appears to be the gold (he’s already got a woman back home – Rita Moreno), but he also is the steady one Hooker calls on when he wants help, like setting a broken leg. He’s exactly the kind of man you want on a venture like this.
Fiske, on the other hand, never shuts up. He presents himself as a cynical gambler and sits around watching people. People who talk a lot are often not taken seriously and Fiske is not taken seriously, until he shows he does have a noble heart at the end. But not until after he’s deflected his own attraction to Leah by accusing her of being an insincere vamp to her face. Fuller does the same thing.
The irony is that she’s really not as scheming as everyone makes her out to be…except Hooker. He seems to be the only one who understands. The trouble seems to be partially that she’s such a strong-willed, driven woman (and few do strong-willed and driven quite like Susan Hayward) that she outdoes Fiske and Fuller (though not Hooker, who seems pretty comfortable with himself). The way she makes her horse leap over a huge precipice without blinking and waits expectantly for the men to follow, who definitely do blink. She seems to have been the driving force behind Fuller’s search for gold and now he resents her because her drive is so much stronger than his and he feels she used him to get the gold. I think she makes them feel slightly weak. But despite it all, Fiske and Fuller still love her and still manage noble sacrifices. And despite all they say, she keeps on trying to save Fuller (perhaps because of guilt, because she did use him? gratitude for his love? former love for him?)
Gary Cooper as Hooker seems to have the least to do of anyone. It’s not even clear if he went on the journey for the gold or if he would have done it anyway. But he’s one of those actors whose presence so quiet, I don’t think we realize how much we would miss him if he was not in the film. He holds everything together: the characters, the story, the movie. He’s the moral compass.
But for being a movie about people “scraped from the bottom of the barrel,” as Fiske calls the group, there is a remarkable amount of nobility. My grandmother commented that despite being people who have clearly been dealt a poor hand in life, there is still a lot of nobility of character. Leah is willing to sacrifice everything for her husband and Hooker, Fiske and Fuller are equally willing to sacrifice their lives for hers.
It’s a film in conflict with itself. Filmed on location in Mexico, it is a beautiful film with craggy and perilous cliffs, sunsets and plains. It’s breathtaking and the music by Herrmann complements it perfectly. Just taking into account the score and cinematography, one would expect the story to be a grand epic. Perhaps it could be interpreted as more grand than greedy (though the dialogue fights against this somewhat). Scrappy people doing their best in the face of fear, temptation, desire, greed and death.
Less noble is the film’s use of the Apache as a plot device (almost a force of nature). They show up whooping (wearing Mohawks) and play the most dangerous game with the characters by hunting them and killing them in locations of their own choosing. But for all that, the film remains an interesting one. Not one of the best westerns, but it is extremely fascinating and a visual and aural pleasure.