It’s easy for great Westerns from the 1950s to get lost, mostly because Hollywood made so many of them. Even some great directors made so many that they have their own hidden gems. While Henry Hathaway can never be considered a “great” director in the same league as John Ford, William A. Wellman, Howard Hawks or even Henry King, he still turned out some great Westerns that you probably never heard of. One of those is Garden of Evil, a film I hadn’t really heard of myself until I picked up a Fox DVD set with Gregory Peck’s The Gunfighter.
Garden of Evil was made in 1954 and, as such, is a very early CinemaScope movie. Its plot, written by Fred Frieberger, Frank Fenton and William Turnberg, is about as simple as it gets. Three Americans – Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark) and Luke (Cameron Mitchell) get stuck in a squalid Mexican town, so they take up an offer from an Leah (Susan Hayward) to help save her husband John (Hugh Marlowe), who is trapped in a goldmine. Along with the native Vincente (Victor Manuel Mendoza), they travel along dangerous terrain and try to avoid Apaches as they travel though the heart of Mexico. Quickly, they learn that they are not traveling through a Garden of Eden, but a Garden of Evil (hence the title).
This actually sounds like a pretty boring story since they just have a simple journey and that’s pretty much all that happens. They eventually reach their destination, only to find out that John is a total jerk, and then have to head home. But what makes it far more interesting is the performances from the three leads. Gary Cooper gives a very different kind of performance here as the mysterious Hooker, who seems to have an answer for everything. Even though he probably could have phoned it in here, Cooper always took everything he did seriously, so he’s excellent.
Richard Widmark probably has the more interesting character though. You always know that Cooper’s characters are always going to be the hero anyway, so that makes watching Widmark take Fiske from a money-hungry gambler to a caring hero much more intriguing. At the beginning of the film, Fiske and Hooker know nothing about each other, but their mutual respect grows over the course of the film and end up becoming good friends. It’s almost a reverse Hawks movie. In Hawks’ films like El Dorado and Rio Bravo, characters are already friends or have turbulent pasts. In Garden of Evil, the audience gets to see a relationship blossom over 100 minutes.
Susan Hayward always seems like – well, to me anyway – an underrated Hollywood vixen. She’s a firebrand in this film, which she has to be as its driving force. Ironically, she made it incredibly difficult on the set for Hathaway and she manages to bring that out when the cameras rolled. You can tell that there is a pent-up frustration boiling in her, but she’s so good that you think it’s her character. It makes it really easy to swallow when her husband tells Hooker the truth about her personality.
The fifth key player in this film (with Hathaway as the fourth) is Bernard Hermann. Amazingly, this is the only Western feature that Hermann – best known for the scores of Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and too many Hitchcocks to list – ever composed a score for. His music might seem intrusive for those more used to quieter scores for Westerns, but he’s really raising the film’s stature and reminding us of the danger that awaits our heroes.
Garden of Evil works as kind of a poor man’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, breaking down that film’s story of greed to its simplicity. Men go on a dangerous journey and put their lives on the line just for money, but here, there’s a woman to throw it out of balance. It’s an excellent Western, one that certainly deserves a few more fans.