Monday, June 30, 2008

Classic Westerns

By David Luhrssen
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Westerns were never my favorite film genre, but I find the movies easy to settle into. I’m not alone. Maybe they are cinematic comfort food for people who remember when westerns were always on TV as they were growing up. Even today, if I stumble across one on TCM, I find myself being comfortably drawn in for the ride. The new three-DVD collection, “Fox Western Classics,” is like sitting down to an afternoon of westerns in the olden days. Aside from their origins in the 20th Century Fox Studio during the 1950s, one of the most prolific periods of production for the western genre, these films had no particular reason to be grouped together. The Gunfighter (1950) and Rawhide (1951), starring Gregory Peck and Tyrone Power respectively, were popular stories of frontier days shot in black and white. I was more intrigued by a lesser-known title, Garden of Evil (1954).

Garden of Evil was filmed in panoramic, full-color Cinemascope, an ideal palette and canvas for the vast, stark landscape of the West. The music, by Bernard Hermann (year later he penned the score for Taxi Driver), invests the mythic with the dramatic. Director Henry Hathaway was a consummate Hollywood professional who worked in many genres, including film noir, always within budget and with an eye for the craft of moviemaking. Garden of Evil was no exception, even if it wasn’t as popular as other Hathaway films such as Lives of a Bengal Lancer or True Grit.

The film begins with an unusual scene: a trio of cowboys coming ashore at a palm-fringed subtropical port. Stranded temporarily in a Mexican seaside town, they eagerly seize a job offer by an American woman who storms into the cantina. She needs help in rescuing her husband from a mining accident deep in the interior. The job pays well because the gold mine is in Apache country.

The woman (Susan Haywood), through resilient in her way, exists mostly as a trigger point for the men. Cameron Mitchell plays an immature, emotionally unstable cowpoke. Richard Widmark is the trickster, a professional gambler who lives according to fate and keeps a card or two up his sleeve. The hero is Gary Cooper, a stoic figure whose Mount Rushmore face is lightened by a twinkle of bitter mirth. The town’s bravest Mexican, a vainglorious but decent chap, accompanies them. Interestingly, in light of the role often foisted on darker ethnics in action films of the 1980s and ‘90s, the Mexican is not the first to die.

Garden of Evil is an odyssey through a varied natural terrain inhabited by an enemy unseen or at the edge of vision. The trio of male American individualists must learn to work as a team against their implacable foe or die in failure. Mitchell’s character proves too weak for the task. The Mexican probably represents a doubtful Cold War ally at a time when westerns, consciously or not, were propping up American identity in a hostile world. The action and plot are economical and the philosophy is as laconic as Gary Cooper, a man’s man who knows how to shoot a rifle, fix a broken leg and speaks fluent Spanish. All of it is overshadowed by the glorious Cinemascope sky and the enormous expanse of nature captured on the wide (and now letter-boxed) screen.

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