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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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No Way Out (1950) – Sidney Poitier’s Movie Debut

Poster - No Way Out (1950)_01Part social commentary and part film noir, No Way Out‘s main theme is racism and it has really aged well, partially because the film manages to never allow its message to slow down the film with long, implausible speeches or sententious dialogue. It definitely has its moments of making a point, but overall doesn’t need to bash us over the head because the story and the acting is strong enough without it. The film marks the debut of Sidney Poitier and was both directed and written by Joseph Mankiewicz, a man interested in exploring social concerns in his films.

Dr. Luther Brooks (Sidney Poitier) is an intern working in the prison ward of the county hospital. He’s still a little unsure of himself and though he’s passed the state board examination and has a license to practice, he asks for another year there before going out on his own. He is the first black doctor at this ward and has the complete support of his superior, Dr. Wharton (Stephen McNally), though he occasionally meets a policeman who seems surprised to see a black doctor.

After a failed attempt at robbing a gas station, the two Biddle brothers are brought into the hospital, both shot in the leg. They’re from Beaver Canal, the white slum section of the city. Dr. Brooks notices that though Johnny Biddle was only shot in the leg, he seems to be exhibiting other symptoms, like confusion, lack of sense in his fingers. He suspects a brain tumor and wants to do a spinal tap, but Ray Biddle (Richard Widmark) is furious to have a black doctor tending them. He begs the police not to leave him and his brother alone with Dr. Brooks, uses every racial epitaph in the book and tries to prevent and distract Dr. Brooks from examining his brother.

But while Dr. Brooks is administering the spinal tap, Johnny Biddle dies. Ray is convinced that Dr. Brooks murdered him. Dr. Wharton trusts Dr. Brooks judgement, but Dr. Brooks wants an autopsy done to prove that his diagnosis was right and that there was nothing that could have been done to save Johnny. Ray, of course, refuses. Dr. Wharton and Dr. Brooks go to see Johnny’s ex-wife, Edie Johnson (Linda Darnell) to ask her to ask Ray to allow the autopsy. She is at first extremely surprised to see a black doctor. You can see it in her eyes. It’s almost as if she’s never stood that close to a black person before or held any conversation with them and you can see that it throws her off balance how he talks and acts just like any other person. Her expression is almost what it would be if she were standing face to face with a Martian who turns out to be just like her.

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

Richard Widmark, Linda Darnell, Sidney Poitier

But when Edie does go to see Ray, he pulls out all the stops. He appeals to the fact that she grew up next door to Johnny and Ray (their parents used to get drunk together), old loyalties to Beaver Canal, an ‘us vs. them’ mentality regarding both blacks and whites, policemen and establishment people like doctors. He then piteously pleads that he saw Dr. Brooks kill Johnny and that people are trying to cover it up. Edie is swayed, reverts to old habits of thought, and agrees to tell Ray’s other brother, George (Harry Bellaver), and the other members of Beaver Canal what Ray told her. The whole incident, they know, will start a riot.

But the black community near Beaver Canal hears about the impending attack on their neighborhood and decide to preemptively attack Beaver Canal, despite Dr. Brooks pleas not to. He feels that such attacks never do any good and only inflame hatred. But the riot still occurs, with Beaver Canal getting the worst of it.

Edie is disgusted with herself and with the violent, almost animal (her word) hatred and brutality displayed by the members of Beaver Canal. Meanwhile Dr. Brooks feels the entire riot occurred because of him and confesses to the murder of Johnny to force an autopsy of Johnny that will prove him right. When they find the tumor that proves his diagnosis, Ray escapes and sets out to murder Dr. Brooks.

No Way Out was Sidney Poitier’s film debut. He was only twenty-two years old, though he said he was twenty-seven, but he is already a powerful actor. Dr. Brooks is portrayed as a good, though flawed, human being and not just a cardboard cutout saint. He’s had to deal with hatred all his life and has grown used to it, but there’s something about the intensity and single-minded focus of Ray that shakes him up. He wants to prove himself in the eyes of others and can’t just let it go, despite Dr. Wharton’s assertion that there is no need, and he has a slight crisis of confidence. His reactions are complicated: determination, nobility, anger, frustration, patience, impatience. He wants to deal rationally with the situation, but keeps encountering the irrationality of Ray.

1083_019851.jpgRichard Widmark is superb and plays truly one of the most hateful characters I have seen in film. Even other members of the hospital acknowledge that his racism is almost a pathology. He unleashes an incredible volley of racial slurs, using the N-word multiple times. He represents a mentality of Beaver Canal, something Edie wants to leave behind, that is almost like arrested-development.

Edie seems to bring out more of the noir elements of the film in her struggles to extricate herself from Beaver Canal and is played very convincingly by Linda Darnell. It is fascinating to watch her character change and see her ideas transformed. She begins by referring to Dr. Brooks as “that colored doctor” or “negro doctor.” By the middle of the film, you can see her consciously stopping and choosing to say “Dr. Brooks.” She goes out of her way to acknowledge Dr. Brooks’ wife by greeting her. By the end, she calls him Luther, and not in a condescending context. Every time she meets a black person, you can see her curiosity and as she talks to Dr. Wharton’s black housekeeper, Gladys, she begins to come to that realization that Gladys is not “other,” but that they actually have much in common.

No Way Out is a film that reflects its time. Dr. Wharton is a good example of this. He says he believes in good doctors, not white doctors or black doctors, and he is a good friend to Dr. Brooks. However, you can still see the racial bias of the system at work, through no fault of his own. He is in the position of patron, not just friend. And when Mrs. Brooks holds back her tears until after he has left and cries on Gladys’ shoulders, you can see that there is still lurking an ‘us vs. them’ mindset. You don’t cry in front of the patron.

In real life, Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier were good friends. In fact, Widmark felt so bad about how he treated Poitier’s character in the film, that he frequently apologized during filming. It’s a well-acted, intense, and compelling drama, that holds up well as a movie and not just as social commentary.

 
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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Drama, Film Noir

 

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