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Garden of Evil (1954)

6547587_origOn 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.

Garden of Evil, 1954The 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?)

gardenofevilGary 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.

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2016 in Movies

 

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Rawhide (1951)

Poster_of_Rawhide_(1951_film)

The poster gives the impression that the film is a steamy bodice ripper in the desert, but really it’s not

I’ve found yet another Western that I enjoy! Perhaps I should officially stop commenting on the circumstance and just admit that I like the genre. But it does demonstrate that I prefer less conventional Westerns. Rawhide was released in 1951 and stars Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward and Hugh Marlowe, but is not connected with the later TV series. It is a hostage drama in the west, taut, suspenseful and slightly claustrophobic. The entire story takes place within the confines of a relay station where convicts hold several people hostage while waiting for a stagecoach carrying gold to pass through.

Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) is the son of a man who owns a string of relay stations across the country where the stage going between the East and West Coast can stop for food and a change of mules. He has been sent to the obscure Rawhide Pass to learn the practical side of the business from Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan), a scruffy old-timer who is not impressed with Tom; he’s not tough enough for him (he can’t believe Tom still bothers to shave and bath so often – it signifies lack of grit for him).

When the morning stage comes through, they learn that the murderer, Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe), and several other convicts escaped from a prison in nearby Huntsville and the authorities are afraid that he plans to rob the stage. Because it’s against company policy to risk the lives of children, Tom and Sam are obliged to force stage passenger Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward – they do have to use force) and her niece, Callie, to stay behind at the station, much to her fury. She and Tom to do not exactly hit it off, as she moves into his room and swipes his soap (she also believes in baths).

But when a respectable man rides up claiming to be a sheriff and shows his badge to Tom, he turns out to be Zimmerman and he and his group quickly take Tom and Sam is soon murdered by Zimmerman’s gun happy, slightly crazy and unpredictable comrade, Tevis (Jack Elam). But Zimmerman warns Tevis not to shoot anymore; they need Tom alive so they can take the stage the following morning and to keep everything looking normal that evening when the other scheduled stage comes through. They also mistake Vinnie for Tom’s wife and try to use her to make Tom do what they want.

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there’s actually none of this going on in the movie – they both spend their time trying to survive

The rest of Zimmerman’s motley group is made up of Yancey (Dean Jaggers), a confused and dim kleptomaniac who’s not much use for anything apart from playing the guitar (he likes how Callie sings with him) and the stolid and unimaginatively obedient Gratz (George Tobias). It’s clear that Zimmerman did not choose this group; they were simply there when he escaped and there is tension between him and Tevis, who is a wild card who acts without thinking while Zimmerman, though ruthless, is more calculated and wants him to stick to the plan.

Meanwhile, Tom and Vinnie spend much of the time locked up in a room together. Tom is afraid to tell Zimmerman she is not his wife for fear he would just kill her. Initially, they still don’t get along and sparks continue to fly, but survival draws them together and I like that about the film. They don’t try to fit a romance into the film (though one could speculate a future one, if one wanted to, but it doesn’t have to go that way, either). Tom comes up with several plans to escape: one is to try to pass a note to the evening stage travelers and the other is to dig a hole in their room with a stolen knife, keeping the hole hidden behind the bed.

It’s not a conventional heroic role for Tyrone Power. He’s not a hero or a coward. He’s just trying to survive. Even Vinnie – who is nothing if not fiery – gets on him for allowing Zimmerman and the rest to walk all over him, but he’s not foolhardy. He primarily uses his brain, trying to figure out a way for them to live, but when the moment calls for it, he can act.

There is very little backstory for any of the characters. We learn a little about Zimmerman, who was raised as a “gentleman,” and evidently murdered his faithless lover. Hugh Marlowe (who I’ve always thought of as the playwright from All About Eve) is excellent as the calculatingly ruthless Zimmerman, who contrasts with his less educated, less bright gang, especially the wild-eyed Tevis, who keeps leering at Vinnie and threatens through his actions to upset Zimmerman’s plans. But though Zimmerman doesn’t commit any of the murders (Tevis does that), he’s equally capable of it. One has no trouble imagining that if he felt he needed to, he could murder everyone, including Callie, who’s just a toddler.

Hugh Marlowe and Tyrone Power

Hugh Marlowe and Tyrone Power

Callie (played by Judy and Jody Dunn) is completely adorable and considerably raises the stakes (especially when Tevis starts shooting at her, which is downright scary). She has no awareness of the danger and adds an element of unpredicability. You never know when she might wonder off. Her aunt, Vinnie, is returning with Callie to the west, whose parents were killed in a shootout. Vinnie seems to have had a colorful past, traveling with her sister and working as an actress and seems used to taking care of herself.

Mostly, I’ve seen Susan Hayward in her early films, before she really came into her own, but I was reading about her in Grand Old Movies, who wrote a fascinating discussion of the actress in his post about the film “Demetrius and the Gladiators” which made me curious to see some of her films. I watched on youtube two films, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (the upload I saw seems to be no longer there; only a slightly sped up version remains) and RawhideRawhide isn’t the quite the showcase for Hayward that other films are, but she is still good, quite the force of nature. She is more openly antagonist against the gang, but comes to appreciate Tom’s approach, too.

Everyone else does equally well. It’s a small cast, adding to the tension. The script was written by Dudley Nichols (who wrote the screenplay for Stagecoach) and was directed by Henry Hathaway (who directed several other Tyrone Power films, such as Johnny Apollo, many adventure films and even noirs like The House on 92nd Street and Kiss of Death).

Fortunately, Rawhide is still available on youtube!

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2015 in Movies

 

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