Garden of Evil (1954)

Garden of EvilThe 1950s were an interesting time for the western genre. While it’s easy to generalize an entire genre over a decade, it’s pretty easy here. So many ’50s westerns were heavy, adult stories that too often played out like a soap opera on a horse. The stories brimmed with intensity, often some unseen but very evident sexual intensity, and covered everything from racism to betrayal to greed and everything in between. A prime example is 1954’s Garden of Evil, an interesting mix with some heavy flaws.

In a coastal town on the Pacific side of Mexico, a steamer drops anchor needing repairs. On-board are three men trying to reach California and its gold fields, including Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark) and Daly (Cameron Mitchell). With repairs expected to take weeks, the trio preps for a long wait…until a beautiful woman, Leah (Susan Hayward), rides into town asking for help. Her husband is trapped in a gold mine several days ride away, and she needs help. Leah offers a payday of $2,000 (with more to come) to whoever helps her. The trio of American agrees, and with a Mexican gunfighter, Vincente (Victor Manuel Mendoza) joining in, the small group rides out into vicious, violent frontier where no one is telling the whole truth.

I was kinda surprised when I stumbled across ‘Garden’ recently on Encore Westerns. Considering the solid casting and talent behind the camera, I’d really never heard much about it. From director Henry Hathaway, it’s a solid effort, pretty typical of so many 1950s westerns. It’s moody, dark and violent, but it’s more the build-up and tension than actual action in the end. Moody and foreboding is typically a good thing, but the payoff has to be worth it. Here? Eh, it’s okay. It’s a little slow at 100-minutes, a lot of vvvvery slow build-up.

Enough here to recommend though, starting with the obvious. That cast? Yeah, pretty acceptable. Cooper does what Cooper does best, the quiet, resolute hero. His part reminded me a lot of his part in another western released in 1954, Vera Cruz, in a story that’s not too far removed either. His dynamic with Widmark’s Fiske isn’t unlike the relationship between Cooper’s Ben Trane and Burt Lancaster’s Joe Erin. Here, the rivalry is mellowed some, but it’s a lot of fun to see the veteran Cooper and the up-and-coming Widmark go toe-to-toe, mostly as allies but always feeling the other one out and his true intentions. Throw in the always capable Susan Hayward, and you’ve got a heck of a lead trio.

It’s fun to see Hayward in the part because though she needs these men’s help, she’s no damsel in distress. She’s holding onto some secrets too that are slowly parceled out. As for the rest, Mitchell isn’t given much to do other than be shifty in a key supporting part. Mendoza is a quiet scene-stealer as Vincente. Hugh Marlowe is basically unrecognizable as John Fuller, Leah’s husband waiting to be rescued…but from what? His introduction should accelerate the momentum, but it doesn’t. That part of the story isn’t worth the build-up. Also look for young Rita Moreno — just 23 years old — as a singer in a saloon in the first 10 minutes of the movie.

Westerns filmed in Mexico always have a unique feel to them, from Vera Cruz to The Magnificent Seven, Major Dundee to Two Mules for Sister Sara and many others. ‘Garden’ is a visual stunner, shot on location in Mexico in and around Mexico City. These are locations unlike any western I’ve ever seen. Much of the movie is our crew riding through this landscape — which could be dull — but you go along for the ride with them and soak it all in.

High on foreboding and foreshadowing intensity through the first 70 minutes or so, the action kicks in over the last 30 minutes. There’s some solid action — gunplay and fast chases across the land — building up to a bit of a surprising ending. Not a complete downer, but pretty close! My only complaint is that the Apaches chasing our group is wearing blue pants with a red stripe, wearing mohawks and look they walked in off the set from the most recent remake of Last of the Mohicans. Still, a good western overall with some flaws but more than enough to recommend.

Garden of Evil (1954): ** 1/2 /****

 

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Hombre (1967)

hombre_28film29Ask most western fans what their favorite Paul Newman western is, and I’d say 9 times out of 10, you’d get “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” back. I’d say it. It’s a classic and deserves its status. Let’s not forget about 1967’s Hombre though, an underrated gem featuring one of Newman’s all-time best performances.

It’s the late 1800’s in the Arizona territory. John Russell (Newman) is a white man who was kidnapped at a young age by Apaches and raised as one of their own. Now a grown man, he associates more with the Apaches than white people. His adopted father though has passed away, leaving him a boarding house to decide what to do with. Russell sells it for a string of horses and takes a stagecoach to finish the deal. On-board, he finds his presence is less than welcome by his fellow passengers. The irony? One of the passengers intends to rob the others on the trail, and John’s skillset as a capable fighter and more than capable frontiersman will be more necessary than ever.

Point of conversation: This is a difficult movie to write a plot synopsis for. I don’t want to give too much away because in a somewhat messaged-based story, there are some good twists and turns along the way. It has some touches of Stagecoach, but in a more brutal, honest way. Hey, it was 1967 as opposed to 1939. Times had a’ changed!

From director Martin Ritt, ‘Hombre’ is one of the first — and best — revisionist westerns that began to look at the American west in a more honest fashion. They weren’t as white-washed as some 1950’s efforts and weren’t as flashy or exaggerated as spaghetti westerns. ‘Hombre’ takes the side of the Apache tribe who by the late 1800s was mostly in poorly-run reservations. We hear more about their plight, especially in quick, understated dialogue, and through one of several twists revealed about halfway through the movie. The bad guys then? Well, technically, everyone. Let’s cut to the chase though. The white folks don’t come off smelling like roses. It’s a fascinating story because it is so different from so many other genre entries.

Now for that Paul Newman fella. Playing John Russell, Newman steals this scene, seemingly without breaking a sweat. His dialogue is minimal, and when he does speak, he gets his message across in short, direct lines. His physical mannerisms are striking, his movements similarly minimalist. It’s just a fascinating character. Russell has chosen basically to live as an Apache warrior, leaving his white roots behind. He feels more at home with the Apaches and their way of life. In his fellow white passengers, he sees prejudice, racism, brutality, and maybe in most aggravating fashion, assumptions based on nothing but rumors. It’s only too perfect that these individuals come to depend on Russell for their very survival.

‘Hombre’ is interesting for a whole lot of reasons, but the biggest? Even with Newman’s Russell, there isn’t really a single sympathetic character in sight. You come to appreciate Russell’s personality and general intention, but sympathetic? Nope. As for the other passengers, look for Jessie (Diane Cilento), an out of work boarding house owner, Fredric March as Favor, the Indian agent, Barbara Rush as his wife, Richard Boone as the surly Cicero Grimes, Martin Balsam as Mendez, the stagecoach driver, and Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye as young married couple working through some issues. Cilento is especially good, the conscious of the movie and a conversational counter to Russell as their situation gets ever more dangerous.

Who else to look for? Keep an eye out for western regulars Frank Silvera, Cameron Mitchell, Val Avery and a pre-All My Children David Canary. Silvera is also a scene-stealer as an unnamed Mexican bandit. His scenes with Newman crackle.

Clocking in at 111 minutes, ‘Hombre’ isn’t fast-paced or action-packed. It is more of a slow burn full of tension, betrayal and some surprises along the way. Composer David Rose’s score isn’t big and booming, mostly relying instead on one memorable, quiet theme. Filmed on location in Arizona, it is a stunner of a flick. The desert and its barren qualities end up being a key additional character.

It all builds to one of the more startling endings I’ve seen in a western. Sticking with its realistic, downbeat tone, the finale features one of the more realistic shootouts I’ve ever seen in a western. Newman owns the last scenes, spewing one-liners with a bite. The movie is full of quick, snappy and biting dialogue, and what would you expect from a screenplay based off an Elmore Leonard novel? I guess I forgot to mention that earlier! Any-hoo, so much to recommend here. I liked this western more on my recent viewing than I ever have before. A must-see for western fans.

Hombre (1967): *** 1/2 /****