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Fox launches a trio of excellent vintage genre titles with its Fox Western Classics, a three-disc set that contains a genuine all-time classic, a solid western-noir and one of the first westerns in CinemaScope, Technicolor and stereophonic sound. 1 After discounts are factored in the economy-priced threesome boils down to less than $6 a title, and Fox adds extras that one would expect on pricier special editions.
The Gunfighter has been so long coming to DVD that we thought it might suffered had a legal snag, like Fox's noirs Cry of the City and Boomerang! Much more likely is that the studio didn't have faith in its popularity, as this western, easily one of the ten best American westerns ever, didn't do well in release in 1950. Fred Zinnemann's uneven, preachy High Noon is always mentioned when it comes time to discuss 50s psychological, 'adult' westerns, but Henry King's tale of the unlucky Jimmy Ringo is twice the movie.
It's a puzzle why 1950 audiences didn't go for The Gunfighter, a superior western on every score. Every character is interesting and Henry King whips up a convincing small town atmosphere in which schoolboys, barflies and troublemakers are naturally attracted to the allure of a bad man purported to be the fastest draw in the west. Jimmy Ringo is trapped by his own image and the natural prejudices of the town: he's no longer a man but a wanted poster, a dime novel hero or a sitting target for an ambitious gunslinger. His only friends are a few bartenders, like Karl Malden's Mac. Realizing that Jimmy Ringo's fame will bring crowds of customers into his saloon, Mac offers to cut the gunman in on the proceeds.
Perhaps Darryl Zanuck knew a great story when he saw one but didn't know how to promote a western lacking in fun 'escapist' mayhem, with a dark, essentially tragic character at its center. The advertising materials for The Gunfighter tell us next to nothing and simply show a generic picture of Gregory Peck brandishing his shootin' irons. Audiences may have harbored memories of Peck as the 'laughing cowboy lover Lewt' from Selznick's Duel in the Sun. Viewers had their pick of downer westerns in 1950, like Anthony Mann's grim Devil's Doorway. Those that didn't opt for fare like Annie Get Your Gun surely preferred the romantic tragedy of Broken Arrow, or the raw violence of Mann's action-packed Winchester '73.
The Gunfighter is an intense character study that treats its western characters not as myths or cartoons but as people with ordinary problems. Mark Strett says that he reformed and became a marshal after seeing a little girl killed in an outlaw raid. Jimmy's old friend Molly (Jean Parker) now has to work as a bar singer (and prostitute?), after her outlaw husband was shot in the back. Schoolteacher Peggy is the flip side of Clementine Carter from John Ford's classic. Peggy makes tentative plans to join her estranged husband in California, knowing that in all likelihood she will end up raising her son without him. To its credit, the film also avoids the political punditry that mars High Noon.
Gregory Peck's acting is sometimes unfairly faulted. Yes, his anguish may be a bit forced in a film like The Bravados, but he's perfect for this story. Jimmy Ringo is hard and bitter but still hopeful for a better future, and Peck makes the character work. Western stars of the 50s often tried to play complex characters with opposing natures, something that James Stewart is praised for. Gary Cooper tried it in the classic Man of the West, and couldn't quite overcome his good guy persona. Peck handles the same duality with ease. Johnny Ringo is a sympathetic guy trapped by his past as a stone killer. The boastful jerk Hunt Bromley, played so well by Skip Homeier, is a mirror image of Ringo's younger, callow self.
The Gunfighter is definitely ahead of its time, a precursor to the 'those days are closing fast' vibe of movies like Man of the West, The Wonderful Country, Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch. Jimmy Ringo's time is almost up, and not because he's a noir loser or a delusional bandit; he simply made the wrong choice in his wild youth. Being wanted for killing men is bad enough, but being a celebrity for it is like a curse from the Bible.
Blink fast and you'll miss Kenneth Tobey in the film's interesting cast of bit players. Schlock filmmaker Larry Buchanan is said to have a bit part as well. Most amusing is the fact that one of the brothers pursuing Ringo is played by none other than Alan Hale Jr., later of Gilligan's Island.
Fox's disc of The Gunfighter reproduces Arthur Miller's fine B&W photography. The image begins a little on the grainy side but improves very quickly. Audio is fine. One featurette (Painting with Light) lauds Arthur Miller using input from American Cinematographer magazine and clips from How Green Was My Valley. The Western Grows Up has good interview input but is too superficial (and Fox-centric) to adequately address the subject of the 50s psychological western. Film historian Alan K. Rode's remarks about the darkening of postwar American films look to have been repurposed from an interview on Film Noir. An advertising gallery shows Fox's pitiful original ad campaign for what western aficionados now consider a true masterpiece.
Rawhide is another high-quality western, a suspense standoff at a stage stop that gets a lot of mileage out of a standard situation. Filmed in the popular Lone Pine region of California, it can boast an unusually interesting supporting cast and provides solid starring roles for Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. The film has no connection with the later Rawhide TV series.
Rawhide is an interesting siege western that emphasizes suspense and character and succeeds on all counts. The location filming adds greatly to the sense of realism, convincing us that the lonely stage station is an isolated outpost, and that Tom and Vinnie have nobody to rely on but themselves. Tyrone Power looks a bit old to be a rich youngster sent west for hard work and experience but is otherwise an excellent choice. Susan Hayward is both beautiful and tough as a frontier woman bringing her sister's baby back from the California mining towns.
Dudley Nichols was one of Hollywood's most dependable and successful writers in the 1930s and 40s, and is responsible for the script for Stagecoach. His work here reflects his talent for rich characterizations while adapting to the more realistic and violent 1950s. Edgar Buchanan is a lovable partner for Tyrone Power, bellyaching about the kid's need to stay clean and take baths.
The film gives Hugh Marlowe a good role as the ruthless Zimmerman. Like Owens, Zimmerman is educated and clever, and has no trouble hiding behind the disguise of a deputy sheriff. Marlowe didn't get many good parts at Fox, and some of those were thankless roles like the turncoat Tom Stevens in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Zimmerman lives by his wits and harbors a wide mean streak; we readily believe that he'll kill a woman and a baby in cold blood.
As if influenced by the brutality of film noir, Rawhide's camera doesn't look away while characters are beaten and choked. Zimmerman has a pair of fairly dependable henchmen played by the amusing George Tobias and an almost unrecognizable Dean Jagger. Jagger may have the film's best line of dialogue when his confused old bandit sincerely advises an 18 month-old child to never, but never steal a horse.
Stealing the better part of the show is Jack Elam, the wall-eyed eccentric who parlayed a role in High Noon into two decades' worth of roles as crazy gunslingers and nervous gangsters: Elam is one of those western actors who never lives to see a "The End" card. This picture has him lusting after Hayward and committing the film's nastiest acts of violence. At one point in the tense climax, the baby girl Callie toddles along in the courtyard of the station, and Elam's Tevis takes potshots at her. The sight of bullets hitting the dust only a few inches from the kid is still disturbing (especially if one has children), and borderline tasteless. At matinees of Rawhide in 1951, did young western fans worry for the baby girl, or did they laugh in approval at the sadistic scene? Because a child is involved, this scene seems more 'dangerous' than the lady-in-the-wheelchair-down-the-stairs scene in Hathaway's earlier Kiss of Death.
Rawhide plays in a very modern groove; I'd imagine its 'home-invasion' ordeal structure was an influence on a great many other movies and TV shows in the 1950s. Perhaps to alleviate a story that might be construed as too downbeat, the show begins and ends with rather foolish episodes extolling the glory of the 'jackass mail' stage lines. The film's music score uses an unimpressive title theme and leaps to reprise "Oh Susanna!" whenever a stagecoach appears. The film's major suspense scenes play best without music.
Fox's DVD of Rawhide is an almost perfect transfer from an even cleaner element than The Gunfighter. A glib and gossipy featurette about Susan Hayward (Hollywood's Straight Shooter) is included, along with an interesting tour-based look at the Lone Pine location (Shoot it in Lone Pine!). The effective posters for Rawhide promise a violent drama.
Making a case for Henry Hathaway's Garden of Evil is rather an uphill battle. Look in Leonard Maltin or any book on westerns and you'll discover that this unique picture doesn't occupy a very high roost in critical circles. Savant saw the movie for the first time on a flat B&W TV set with mono sound, and has never seen it on a screen; I was thrilled to tape it from FxM cable about fifteen years ago so that I could finally see it in something approximating its original CinemaScope proportions. Nowadays it's mostly noted for its Bernard Herrmann music score. For reasons I'll explain below, it's a personal favorite that I never tire of watching.
The expensive Garden of Evil is one of the early CinemaScope extravaganzas made when the process was projected at an ultra-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Fox and Darryl Zanuck's gamble on the new format was such a make-or-break proposition that some of the early releases were filmed on a lavish scale. Fox sent a full company to Mexico and tied up three big stars for months to ensure that something Big and Different would result.
Garden of Evil is a potentially great film with an almost un-killable story. Four men follow a beautiful woman into a forbidden land, and are destroyed by their own vices. The original plan was to film in the United States, but Darryl Zanuck must have remembered the exotic, other-worldly tone of the end of Captain from Castile, a Fox picture made in Mexico seven years before. A volcanic eruption just happened to coincide with the filming, favoring Castile with some unique visuals; Zanuck realized that Garden of Evil's strange allegory could benefit greatly from the same weird Mexican locations.
Unfortunately, the film is hobbled by a leaden, talky script. Widmark's Fiske evaluates, analyzes and psychoanalyzes his trail-mates almost non-stop, violating the western rule that prefers that character be established in action rather than words. Fiske's dialogue is full of lame 'gambler-speak; it might as well be a radio show. Gary Cooper must deal with portentous dialogue that serves an undeveloped Bible allegory. Yes, Leah tempts the men into a savage Garden of Eden where they're judged for their sins. One of the men ends up crucified upside-down on a stone cross. 2 Cooper's Hooker is rather poorly established. He's come around the Cape Horn, presumably from the East, but like Luke Daly is obviously already a westerner. In most Cooper films his moral position is established by others, leaving Coop to personify quiet integrity with his actions and body language. Here Cooper has to handle unclear passages like, "A cross isn't a bad thing to see. It can be beautiful thing. And everybody has one. That was his." Or, "Somebody always stays. All over the world, somebody gets it done." Cooper is made to sell a pretentious message that's either garbled, or completely obscure.
The other characterizations are thin. Víctor Manuel Mendoza's Vicente is a crude giant with an infantile sense of humor. Cameron Mitchell is around to threaten the leading lady with rape (and drive her into the arms of Cooper). Fiske's a tiresome philosophy book and Hugh Marlowe's husband is a suicidal grumpus. All Cooper need do to claim Hayward is to stay detached and calm. In other words, be 'Coop'.
Viewers also complain about the film's silly Indians, who live out in the scorching elements but have Mohawks and go bare-chested like Eastern Indians of a century before. Unlike the later realistic Apaches of Ulzana's Raid and Major Dundee, these Indians average six feet in height!
With nobody to straighten out the gabby text and hollow characters, the film flounders in its own dramatics. Henry Hathaway is one of those film artists who was only as good as the script he was given. He frequently turns in supremely expressive work, as in the strange and surreal Peter Ibbetson. Hathaway's direction does nothing with the text, but his visual touches creates an operatic western experience, joining strange locations and forceful music to positive effect.
Garden of Evil is all landscape. Only two or three scenes take place in interiors, and the rest of the movie explores jungle forests and craggy volcanic landscapes that would be appropriate for One Million Years B.C.. Colonial ruins are salted here and there, giving the impression that the Mexican settlers were forced to abandon the land to the cruel volcanoes and the "Evil" Indians. The highlight of the movie is a treacherous passage across a cliff face with a thousand-foot drop. It's one of those impossible movie settings where one expects to see men and horses alike creeping along on their hands and knees. They instead trot happily, or take the turns at a gallop. At one point horses and riders must vault a gap in the pathway ledge, like a steeplechase in the sky.
Krasner's CinemaScope photography invests all of this with a giant sense of scale. The run-up to the cliffs takes place in vast wide shots showing the three heroes fleeing mounted bands of Indians across a real, rocky landscape that resembles the back of a giant crab. The scale is so big, the horses look like gnats. On the cliff face Hathaway uses steep angles to suggest the height, proving that CinemaScope isn't limited to the horizontal X Axis.
Carefully planned mattes create the best views of the cliff face, filling in the long drop below the actors. Some of the rolling hills in the distance look a bit painterly but overall the mattes are very convincing. The effects men even add a stop motion animation shot, when one unlucky Apache takes an unscheduled plunge down the painted cliff side.
All of this effects-laden Big Sky wonderment is heightened by Bernard Herrmann's exciting, muscular score, which gives the show a stylistic foundation and smoothes over tedious parts such as Richard Widmark's seemingly endless exit scene. Much as Herrmann gave dimension and 'magic' to the fantasy worlds of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, he almost single-handedly brings life to Garden of Evil. Crossing a weird land of black sand and buried churches (more symbolism), the group breaks into a gallop when they finally near the mine. Cooper says "Let's ride!, cueing a burst of Herrmann music. It's a great 'western' moment. Five years later, producer Charles Brackett would assign Herrmann to another exotic odyssey, Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Variety's original review thought that Herrmann's music overwhelmed the story and dialogue, to which we answer, "Duh!" The review also went out of its way to pan some of the film's excellent process work. Cooper's final dialogue line, spoken in front of a blazing Technicolor sunset, should have been the film's only piece of verbal philosophy: "The Garden of Evil. If the world was made of gold, I guess men would die for a handful of dirt." The beautiful shot is one of several nearly undetectable traveling mattes. Another is Cooper's first farewell to Hayward, when he doubles back to check up on Fiske. Garden of Evil shows Hollywood artisans and artists redeeming a movie with great technical contributions. I imagine that watching it on a huge screen in a new Technicolor print in full four-track stereophonic sound was a sensory delight, an almost intimidating experience.
Some odd notes on the movie: A young Rita Moreno plays the café singer in Puerto Miguel, but I don't think that the singing voice is her own. It's Moreno's 17th movie but she wouldn't really get noticed until 1956's The King and I. The boat captain at the beginning is Fernando Wagner, who would play the German advisor Mohr fifteen years later, in The Wild Bunch. Víctor Manuel Mendoza never became a crossover success in American films as did Pedro Armendáriz. Mendoza has notable roles in Buñuel's Los Olvidados and Susana and a great part in Robert Mitchum's superb 1959 western The Wonderful Country. 3
Nick Redman, John Morgan, Steven Smith and William Stromberg participate in a commentary discussion on Bernard Herrmann; all are pleased that this release has an Isolated Score Track, something Herrmann fans will be eager to audit. The Making of... featurette soon runs out of interesting content and recycles some of the film's original publicity pap, the kind invented to keep Hollywood aware of the distant location filming. It's not good when interview subjects are made to say things like, "Gee, that could have happened, I guess..." A piece on Henry Hathaway (When The Going Gets Tough ...) is better, but it doesn't make a strong enough case for the under-appreciated director. Large companies are now producing DVD 'docus' for older films in bulk, and many look like cookies out of the same cutter. Just the same, we're glad that Fox is giving their library releases Cinema Classics Collection treatment.
Fox's DVD of Garden of Evil looks great in a digitally restored enhanced transfer with good color. The presentation begins with an unnecessary disclaimer about the print quality. The English track in 4.0 may be the original mix; a mono track and subtitles are provided in Spanish (¡Cabalguemos!) along with a mono track in French. The film is not presented in the full 2.55:1 as listed on the box, but no visuals appear to be seriously compromised.
The Fox Western Classics box bundles three very entertaining pictures into an economical package: all of these pictures should have been released years before. It'll be an essential purchase for even casual western fans.
Savant will continue to praise Fox's careful attention to their library titles and hope that they release more of their critically-lauded 50s classics in Region 1, like Nicholas Ray's Bigger than Life and Elia Kazan's Wild River.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Fox Western Classics rates:
1. Garden of Evil was the second Fox western to be released in CinemaScope and Technicolor. Warners' The Command was released in February 1954, but it was in WarnerColor. River of No Return is in both 'Scope and Technicolor and came out in April, beating Garden of Evil, which was a school's-out hit in July. Broken Lance arrived in September, Sitting Bull in October and Track of the Cat and Drum Beat followed in November.
2. That stone cross seems very creepy out there by itself. The cast list for Garden of Evil has a priest character that I didn't see in the movie. Did the rescuers come across a priest on their way to Fuller's gold mine? 4
3. Garden of Evil was nowhere to be seen for years, and Savant made do with an original poster (above) to remind him of it. Hayward's body is almost as exaggerated as the oversexed artwork in 'headlight' comic books -- just look at the ridiculous size of her hand in relation to, well, you know.
4. Note from Brad Arrington, 5.03.08: Hi Glenn, Just read your excellent review of the "Westerns From Fox" box-set ("years overdue", I certainly agree!) The answer to your question regarding the scene with the priest from Garden of Evil is this: The travellers are just leaving the town of Puerto Miguel to begin the journey to the Garden of Evil when they happen upon an old priest who warns them against going there, no matter what their reasons may be (curiously, a snippet of this scene can actually be viewed on the trailer from the film!). The scene occurs between the shot of Cameron Mitchell following Susan Hayward out of the cantina and what is now the next scene of the party riding up the slope in extreme long-shot. There is even a music cue for the scene which was cut from the final release also, but IS included in John Morgan and Bill Stromberg's re-recording of the score on the Marco Polo label. The brief cue is Herrmann's Garden of Evil theme, but played in the extreme low-register of the orchestra.
You see, Garden of Evil is one of MY favorite Westerns too, ever since I first saw it MANY years ago. There's just something about it that is very haunting, something that I can't quite put my finger on to explain.... I have seen it on a big screen twice. First at the L.A. County Museum of Art about 10 or so years ago, and second at the Egyptian about 4-5 years ago. Both times it was the same beat-up British print. But at least it was a 35mm 'Scope-Stereo print. Hopefully, Fox has a digital master that can be shown theatrically so new generations can see Garden of Evil the way it was intended to be seen. Your review hit the nail on the head. It's a damn good picture. Best, Brad Arrington
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