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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Friendly Persuasion (1956)

poster_-_friendly_persuasion_01I grew up watching movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s so the back-to-back decades typically dominates my favorites list. Two I often associate with growing up are 1965’s Shenandoah and 1956’s Friendly Persuasion, two like-minded stories about families in the Civil War. I watched Shenandoah a few years ago, and it more than held up. ‘Persuasion’ is generally held in higher regard, but it’d been years since I’d seen it. What’s the verdict? Nothing to worry about!

It’s 1862 in southern Indiana, and the Civil War is in its second year of fighting. For the Birdwell family, including patriarch Jess (Gary Coooper) and Eliza (Dorothy McGuire), the War is a sore subject and one generally ignored with the fighting so far away. The Birdwells are a Quaker family, preaching peace and forgiveness, not death and violence. That peaceful mindset and ideal is being put to the test though as the war moves north, including rumors of a Confederate raid marching into Indiana. Jess and Eliza vow to stay free of the fighting, but their oldest son, Joshua (Anthony Perkins), feels conflicted. He believes in the Quaker ideal, but he also feels that he should do what he believes, do his duty, and protect his family, their land and well-being. If the raiding party is legit, that decision may come up quicker than anticipated.

It’s always a mixed bag revisiting movies you haven’t seen in years, movies you grew up loving. Watching ‘Persuasion’ had none of those worries. It’s a classic, standing the test of time. Director William Wyler‘s film earned six Oscar nominations, surprisingly winning exactly zero. I think one of the biggest compliments you can give a movie is that it is simply put…charming. ‘Persuasion’ is a wonderfully acted, well-told story with strong direction, cinematography and soundtrack. It is charming, likable, and enjoyable, all with a story that has a message that doesn’t go overboard or try too hard.

Gary Cooper doesn’t always come to mind as one of my favorites. He doesn’t have that one movie I just out of this world love. As I’ve watched more of his performances though, I’m continually impressed. His Jess Birdwell is a gem, a Quaker father with a wife and 3 kids who strongly believes in his religion…but not obsessively. He likes to play music, likes to race his horse to church, and isn’t above tweaking a rule here and there. McGuire as his wife, Eliza, is the polar opposite. She’s rigid in her beliefs as a Quaker minister and intends to live by those beliefs. Somewhere in between, they’re perfect together as a very believable couple. Two pros nailing their lead performances.

In just his second film role, Perkins is a strong supporting player as Joshua, the 17/18(?) year old Birdwell son. He’s trying to grow up, find himself, discover who he is, all amidst one of the most turbulent times in American history. Quiet, understated and a little twitchy at times, it’s an excellent part. Phyllis Love rises above a limiting part as Mattie, the Birdwells’ daughter and middle child, love struck by a young Union officer, Gard (Peter Mark Richman), from the area. One of the more prolific child actors working in the 1950’s, 11-year old Richard Eyer is a scene-stealer as Little Jess, the youngest Birdwell child, alway questioning, always a bit of trouble and a frequent target of the family’s goose’s attacks. Three strong parts to round out the Birdwells.

Also look for Robert Middleton as Sam Jordan, the Birdwells’ Methodist neighbor and Jess’ close friend and a bit of a friendly rivalry, especially when it comes to horse races. Joel Fluellen also has a memorable, if smallish, part as Enoch, an escaped slave who works on the Birdwells’ farm.

If ‘Persuasion’ has a weakness, I’d say it concerns the running time, a somewhat leisurely 139 minutes. An episodic storyline early on introduces the family, the setting and some other necessary background. A trip to the county fair sets the stage for much of what we’re to see, but some other coming ventures wander a little bit too much. The biggest culprit is Jess and Joshua on the road visiting a widower’s farm and her three man-starved daughters. A little much, a little overdone in the comedy department.

Vera Cruz (1954)

vera_cruz423The 1960’s have often been identified as the decade that did in the western genre. Too many TV shows, shifting styles and tones, and a general cynicism in the viewing audience turned old-fashioned westerns into violent, nasty and bloody stories. The process continued well into the 1970s with the concept of revisionist westerns. Let’s be honest though, the trend started before the 60s, notably with 1954’s Vera Cruz.

After his Louisiana plantation was destroyed during the Civil War, former Confederate officer Ben Trane (Gary Cooper) rides south into Mexico. He’s looking for work as a gunhand, willing to take just about any job he can as a mercenary. On the trail, he meets Joe Erin (Burt Lancaster), an American gunman with quite a track record. Joe is at the head of a gang of American gunfighters, bandits and outlaws, all looking for work. They find it in French emperor Maximilian who’s looking for help. Along with a company of French lancers, Ben and Joe must help transport a beautiful countess (Denise Darcel) to the coastal town of Vera Cruz. There’s more to the convoy though which Trane and Erin quickly find out. Betrayals, back-stabbing and double-crosses await in abundance on the trail.

I can’t imagine what audiences thought when they saw this 1954 western from director Robert Aldrich. It’s unlike any western released to that point and for several more years to boot! Violent, cynical and other than Cooper’s Ben Trane, not even a remotely sympathetic character in sight! Everyone is out for themselves, and $ is the end-all, be-all no matter who gets in the way. Case in point? Lancaster’s Joe Erin uses children as a hostage in an early scene, and it doesn’t seem like it’d take too much for him to call a bluff. Characters willing to go to those depths wouldn’t be common in westerns until spaghetti westerns exploded in popularity about a decade later. 10 years! We’re still 3 years from Leave it to Beaver even premiering on TV!

‘Cruz’ is influential in any number of ways, but my favorite influence is the casting of its two leads, Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Trane is a true Southern gentleman, but a desperate one in search of cash and a new beginning. Erin is a killer, a gunslinger, and not above doing anything to get that money. Their chemistry is flawless, Cooper’s understated charm and Lancaster’s showier style, especially when he flashes that toothy smile when you know he’s up to no good. The relationship — unlikely and untrusting — is the inspiration for countless future westerns, especially The Wild Bunch and For a Few Dollars More. Not often thought of as their best performances, but clearly two parts the duo had some fun bringing to life.

Aldrich specialized in guy’s guys movies — The Dirty Dozen, Flight of the Phoenix — and he brings a cool supporting cast together here, including several budding stars. Erin’s gang includes Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and several other familiar faces. Also look for Archie Savage as Ballad, a black soldier who served with the Union. Along with Darcel, Sara Montiel is a potential love interest as Nina, a Mexican girl working with the revolutionaries. Rounding out the powers that be on both the Mexican and French side are Cesar Romero (a French Marquis), Henry Brandon (a French lancer), Morris Ankrum (revolutionary leader), and George Macready (Maximilian).

Filmed on location in Mexico, ‘Cruz’ is the better for it. You feel like you’re part of the revolution itself with the worn-down ruins, the dusty streets, and the mountains in the background. Filming even took place at Teotihuacan, at its time one of the largest cities in the world and a beautiful backdrop, even if it is only for a scene. The final battle is the same location as the finale in The Wrath of God (one of my favorites too). The locations go a long way toward the realism, adding a feeling of authenticity to the proceedings. It’s also a cool triple- or quadruple-feature with The Treasure of Pancho Villa, Bandido, The Wonderful Country and others.

A western that is ahead of time and incredibly entertaining. There is plenty of action, and even having seen it before, the story keeps you guessing until the end with betrayals and double-crosses galore. Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster are excellent together, a pairing of two of Hollywood’s all-time greats living up to expectations.

The historical setting is also familiar among westerns, with the French involvement in Mexico also in Major Dundee, The Undefeated, Two Mules for Sister Sara, El Condor and Adios, Sabata. An interesting time in history that isn’t necessarily well-known.

Vera Cruz (1954): *** 1/2 /****

High Noon (1952)

high-noonAs a diehard fan of the western genre, I have one glaring omission that I not so proudly reveal today. Though I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years, I have never sat down and watched 1952’s High Noon from beginning to end. I know…crazy, right? Well, here we are. I can officially check it off the list. Put your pitchforks and torches away.

In the town of Hadleyville, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just married Amy Fowler Kane (Grace Kelly) and is retiring as the town marshal. He’s minutes away from leaving town on his honeymoon when three gunfighters ride through town. The telegraph office begins clicking away with a message too, notorious killer Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), has been paroled after receiving a life sentence, members of his gang waiting at the train station. The marshal who put him away who he swore revenge against? Will Kane. Now, Kane must decide what to do. With everyone telling him to hightail it out town before Miller arrives on the noon train, Kane decides to make his stand. Will Hadleyville support him though or will he be on his own?

From director Fred Zinnemann, ‘Noon’ is consistently ranked as one of the all-time great westerns. I never actively avoided it, just never actively sought it out either! I liked the idea of the movie more than the final product to cut to the chase. It’s good — really good — but not great for me. The story unfolds basically in real-time (clocking in at 85 minutes) from the moment Kane finds out Miller is coming to the time the killer and his gang descend on the town. Filmed in black and white, the stark western town feels very isolated to the world, removed from any civilization.

So that Gary Cooper, man, he’s always good. When I review his movies, I often find myself typing ‘one of his best roles.’ Playing Marshal Will Kane, Cooper earns the description again. Along with Sergeant York, this is probably his most famous, iconic role. Bigger picture? It’s one of the most iconic roles ever in the western genre. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than a man — a lone man — deciding to make a decision that he believes is right, potentially dangerous consequences be damned. Everything screams ‘RUN’ and everyone around him echoes the sentiment. He’s married, he’s retiring and he has a whole new (hopefully peaceful) life ahead of him. He should run for the hills. He doesn’t though. Cooper’s Kane makes his stand because he believes he’s right, even when the entire town abandons him.

Cooper was perfect at that Everyman role. He’s not a super marshal, not a gun-slinging gunfighter. He’s just a man. Few characters in a western resonate as much as him. Alan Ladd’s Shane, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, William Holden’s Pike Bishop, maybe a few others I’m missing, but Kane is right in that western hierarchy.

This is Cooper’s movie, but the supporting cast is nothing to shake your head at. Kelly is the newlywed bride, a Quaker who sees a future with Kane. Katy Jurado is a scene-stealer as Helen Ramirez, a Mexican woman with power, albeit hidden power, who has a past with Cooper’s Kane. I would love to see what a movie not limited by 1950s standards would do with this character. Just the same, an excellent part. Also look for Lloyd Bridges as Harvey, the angry deputy, Thomas Mitchell as the Mayor, and Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney Jr., and Otto Kruger as some of the key townspeople. Miller’s gang includes Robert J. Wilke, Lee Van Cleef and Sheb Wooley. Also look for small parts for western regulars Jack Elam and John Doucette.

One of many claims to fame this western has is the famous criticism it received from….the Duke himself, John Wayne. Wayne objected to the townspeople’s response to Kane’s desperate plea for help. He even made Rio Bravo with director Howard Hawkes as a direct counter to ‘Noon.’ I tend to agree. Human nature kicks in, but it is a tad heavy-handed at times. Naturally no one wants to die going up against four hardened gunfighters, so Kane finds himself fighting a battle on his own. The negative is that it goes a little slow in getting to the showdown, a little repetitive. Minor complaint, but I did lose some interest along the way.

The tension is palpable though as the showdown looms. As noon approaches, the tension and anxiety kick in in crazy doses. ‘Noon’ has one of my favorite single shots in film history, a pan on a dolly that shows a nervous Kane, completely alone on a vacant street waiting to do what he believes is right. Cooper nails this scene, some nervous twitches, touching his hat, his gun as the train whistle blows in the background. No nonsense finale, just what we’ve been waiting for. Glad I finally caught up with this and officially checked it off my list.

High Noon (1952): *** 1/2 /****