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    How This Garden Has Grown

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    When it rode into New York moviehouses 63 years ago yesterday, director Henry Hathaway’s brooding and scenically breathtaking Cinemascope and Technicolor Western Garden of Evil (1954), renamed from its earlier draft title of Volcano, made something distinctive from standard-issue elements because of the elevated level of talents assembled and the desolate beauty of the Mexican locations around Acapulco, Cuernavaca and Uruapan where it was shot. Temporarily stranded in a coastal village, three gold-seeking adventurers played by Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark and Cameron Mitchell are approached by a spirited American woman (Susan Hayward) who’ll pay handsomely if they’ll accompany her to rescue her husband (Hugh Marlowe) who’s trapped by a cave-in at a gold mine in the heart of hostile Apache territory. Their treacherous trek takes them “through banana tree jungles, ancient deserted villages and the black volcanic sands surrounding Paricutin Mountain” (as Jeffrey Meyers recounted in his 1998 Gary Cooper: American Hero), photographed to striking effect by two cinematographers, Hollywood’s Milton Krasner (who would win that year’s Best Color Cinematography Oscar® for Three Coins in a Fountain) and distinguished Mexican veteran Jorge Stahl Jr. The journey also exposes the rogues’ true natures: Cooper the savvy, basically decent leader who keeps the ragtag mission on course, Widmark the gambler/ manipulator whose camaraderie with Cooper allows him to tap reserves of courage and gallantry of which he considered himself incapable, and Mitchell the lustful, gold-obsessed brute whose baser instincts regarding the trio’s female employer require decisive curbing from his comrades. All of this is smartly shaped by screenwriter Frank Fenton (adapting a story by Fred Freiberger and William Tunberg) and sonically turbocharged by a powerful and propulsive score by Bernard Herrmann, his one-time venture into the Western genre. Although in 1954 it was regarded as a reliably professional movie off the studio assembly line, it has subsequently grown in critical regard to be considered something else: influential. These evaluations of the movie – David Sterritt’s consideration found here: – and Twilight Time’s extras-rich 2016 hi-def Blu-ray release – Frank Calvillo’s Cinapse evaluation found here: – are illustrative. Despite the fact that the story portrayed characters of less than sterling integrity, unexpected valor arose behind-the-scenes as well as on screen. “Hayward was a real heroine off camera,” Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross document in The Motion Picture Guide. “During the shooting around the volcano Paricutin, she noticed a small boy slip off a ledge. He was about to fall from a lethal height when she jumped from her horse (she was an excellent horsewoman) and raced to grab him, saving his life. Oddly enough, the actress had herself been saved from falling to her death from a mountaintop years earlier when she was in another production, I’d Climb the Highest Mountain (1951).” In short, Garden of Evil (on TT disc) pays it forward, and there’s nothing standard-issue about that.