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Garden of Evil (Blu-ray Review)

13 Jun, 2016 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, Cameron Mitchell.

Fox’s early-Scope Western from July 1954 isn’t and wasn’t of the “everyday” variety, yet judging by final results, it kind of was if you’re limiting discussion to ’50s outdoor adventures whose producers or bankrolling studios had pockets as deep as studio chief Darryl Zanuck’s. Near-fatally plodding but with compensations that have kept me re-watching it over a lot of decades, Garden of Evil (good title) came so early in the widescreen revolution that Fox was still shooting in Technicolor before making the transition to DeLuxe before year’s end. And when NBC launched its landmark “Saturday Night at the Movies” in the fall of 1961 — thus ushering in network showings of relatively recent Hollywood fare four to five nights a week for a number of years — Evil was, if memory serves, just the fourth picture aired after How to Marry a Millionaire, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Titanic, such was its built-in star power.

Evil even rated a color showing for its network premiere, but this was back in the horrific pan-and-scan days that should have been curtailed at once despite the non-existence of widescreen TVs in the marketplace for decades. (Back in those awful days that didn’t end all that long ago, I always used to say that if you thought your set was too small to sustain a letterboxed showing at home, there was a new invention called the ass that you could simply move a little closer to the screen.) And beyond what became every network’s mangling of aspect ratios when it came to post-1953 Hollywood, how many people do you know who had color sets in ’61? (I knew two.) So when you’ve lived through this kind of exhibition history, Twilight Time’s new release of a high-def Evil is special — or at least it is in terms of non-narrative concerns — if you’re able to see it on a big home screen. This is 2.55-to-1, baby, and the film also has one of those early magnetic stereo tracks — an extra boon when you remember who composed the score (more on that in a minute).

Set in the late 1880s, this yarn about a goldmine cave-in’s aftermath is fairly basic. A sweaty Susan Hayward enters a Mexican cantina looking for men to rescue trapped husband Hugh Marlowe (one of the more thankless roles you’ll ever see, though at least he was still, if not for long, in 'A'-pictures). Stranded, and thus amenable to her offer of big bucks, are Americans Gary Cooper (mysterious), Richard Widmark (a gambler dandy) and Cameron Mitchell (lusting as much for Hayward’s red hair as the reward). They also take along a free-living Mexican local (Victor Manuel Mendoza), who’s just been involved in a squabble over the watering hole’s resident provocative dancer (Rita Moreno, one scene). As a young teenager, I was always surprised that Hayward made another movie about a husband-in-peril just one year later (and at Fox): Soldier of Fortune. Couldn’t these mates just stay at home with her and roll around in a haystack or something? I wondered about that, too.

Henry Hathaway directed in Hathaway fashion — which, as I’ve never forgotten after hearing Dennis Hopper say it on a ’90s “Later With Bob Costas” interview, meant (HH’s virtues aside) not moving the camera. In 2.55, this can be a bummer, and a lot of the movie is static despite spectacular Milton Krasner vistas (matte-work distractions of mountains aside) and the caliber of powerhouse leads you almost never see combined today. Widmark third-billed at this peak stage of his career? Well, his Fox contract was ending, and his co-stars weren’t exactly slouches (in Broken Lance, which opened in New York later the same month, Widmark was billed fourth). This was location footage, too, which meant that the actors were all down in Mexico together trying to get along (there’s an amusing story on the Blu-ray commentary about how Mitchell got a little too frisky with hot-tempered Hayward and paid the price with few facial divots).

Faced with a movie more interesting around the edges than down the middle, Twilight Time maestro Nick Redman (with colleagues Stephen C. Smith, John Morgan and William T. Stromberg) does something a little daring and very smart: He has this quartet devote a huge amount of the voiceover commentary to composer Bernard Herrmann and a discussion of sound cues, orchestrations, Fox’s nonpareil (my opinion) music department and, of course, Herrmann himself — both in terms of his life, career, career decline for a while in the mid-1960s and his well-known personality foibles. (Smith has written the definitive Herrmann biography, while the other three gave wide backgrounds in the preservation of film music). Things I didn’t realize or had forgotten: that Herrmann only did about one movie per year in the ’40s until an explosion of work in the ’50s; that Fox musical director Alfred Newman was a huge supporter when at least a few of their fellow composers weren’t full-fledged Herrmann advocates; and that Evil was Herrmann’s only feature Western (that one had really gotten past me). As with other Twilight Time releases, you can isolate the music track, and watching an unencumbered “pure” (sans dialogue) mix of Krasner’s locations and Herrmann’s music is a fairly trippy experience.

With carryover featurettes on Hayward, Hathaway and the film’s making, this is one of TT’s more “packed” releases, and I didn’t realize that a) Cooper and Hathaway were best friends or close; and b) that Hathaway directed more Cooper films than anyone else (the bulk of them in the Paramount 1930s, including The Lives of a Bengal Lancer). Though it’s tough to watch Evil without thinking how gamey the characters must be getting after fatal dust-ups with Indians and treks up and down narrow mountain horse paths, I would be remiss in not mentioning that Cooper wears a pair of really cool-looking jeans here and that anyone who wants to send me a half-dozen pair will not have the delivery rejected at the door.

Though the movie is what used to be called a “programmer” — albeit one with major Zanuck production values — its stars both in front of and behind the camera still make me salivate a little, which is why I keep paying return visits. Fox apparently opened Evil across the country concurrent with its New York release — not necessarily that common a thing in those days with a big picture — and in my city, the cast and the new Scope novelty proved to be enough of an audience magnet for the movie to sustain a two-week run at the 2,800-seat Loew’s Broad without benefit of a second feature. Of course, given the gonzo local bookers at the time, someone would have probably paired it with Vincent Price and Eva Gabor in The Mad Magician or maybe The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters, both of which came out at roughly the same time as this classier entry.

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