Henry Hathaway has 67 films under his belt as director. From 1930-1974, Hathaway mostly made movies in the Western genre, some of which starred John Wayne, but it seemed his main go-to guy for these films was the iconic actor Gary Cooper. In 1954, Hathaway took to the on-location shooting in Mexico to make his next Western, and convinced an all-star cast to join him for a film called 'Garden of Evil', which of course does not feature an actual garden, but rather the beautiful, yet dangerous terrains of Mexico, despite some of the scenic paintings in the background to double as an actual location.
Starring Susan Haward, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Rita Moreno, and Cameron Mitchell, this Western starts out like 'The Treasure or Sierra Madre', with some guys looking to strike it big with gold. However, 'Garden of Evil' quickly turns away from that narrative, when a woman by the name of Leah Fuller enters the frame. Leah (Hayward) is in a panic as she enters a saloon and asks the help of Hooker (Cooper), Fiske (Widmark), and Luke (Mitchell) to help out and rescue her husband who is trapped in a gold mine in dangerous Apache territory. Another Mexican bar-patron tags along by the name of Vincente (Victor Manuel Mendoza).
Soon, the five people are off to save Leah's husband John. The film doesn't deal with a ton of suspenseful shootouts or action sequences. Instead, the film is more dialogue driven on the open terrain where the few guys all start to fall for Leah, in case her husband is dead. When they find out he is not dead, but badly injured, getting him out of the mine might prove for a bigger task than anticipated, since the Apaches are ready to attack at any moment. Again, there are not a whole lot of action moments here, but instead plays out like a dramatic soap opera as the guys discuss their feelings and longing for the woman in front of them.
Sure, there is a climactic shootout at the end of the film, but none of it's really thrilling or energizing. I believe Hathaway's intent was to tell a story about men in dire consequences, who wanted a woman, and were willing to sacrifice themselves to achieve this. In addition to appease the studios and audiences, there was an all-star cast and beautiful sweeping locations for filming. 'Garden of Evil' just never lives up to the real solid westerns of this time period. That being said, this stands out too as being different from the normal western genre as a character study, rather than an action-western.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Garden of Evil' comes with a 25GB Blu-ray Disc from Twilight Time and is Region A Locked. There is an illustrated booklet with an essay about the film by Julie Kirgo, but no digital download. The disc is housed in a hard, clear plastic case.
'Garden of Evil' comes with a 1080p HD transfer and is presented in 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Remember this film came out in the early 1950s, so there are still some issues to be had here. That being said, this is the best 'Garden of Evil' has probably ever looked since its release all those decades ago. The film is supposed to showcase the excellent scenic views and landscapes of Mexico, and it does that well, however there are certain moments that look worse for the wear than others, sometimes even in the same scene.
Detail looks sharp and vivid in certain scenes that are well lit in natural light outdoors, but when the matte paintings enter the picture or nighttime falls, things get a little murky and then some. Facial hair and makeup effects look good in close-ups and the western wear looks solid with fine textures. Wider shots also look decent. Colors are well-saturated for the most part, but never seem to really pop vibrantly, but instead has a rustic and dusty look to it.
Skin tones are rather yellowish throughout too and not completely natural looking. Black levels are rather deep, though. There are a couple of minor instances of dirt, debris, and scratches, but it's nothing to really write home about, leaving this video presentation with decent marks, considering the age.
Now, I wish all releases had the options that Twilight Time gave us with this release here. There are four different options to choose from, including a DTS-HD MA 5.1 option, as well as a DTS-HD MA 4.0 mix as it was originally in theaters, a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo option, and an isolated music track by Bernard Herrmann in DTS-HD MA 3.0. That's one fine selection there and I plead for these companies to give us more of these options on every release, because it's nice to have the original theatrical option, but it's also great to have a 5.1 option so that we can fully immerse ourselves in the entire soundscape of the film, bass and all.
I highly recommend the 5.1 option here, because you get a lot of the low end with the score that really brings out the dramatic moments that you otherwise couldn't get in one of the other sound mixes. Sound effects are lively and loud, while the ambient noises of nature sounds are plentiful and full. Dialogue is always clear and easy to follow as well without any pops, cracks, hiss, or high shrills. I gave a listen to each mix and all of them sound great. The 5.1 option is still your best bet for the full effect.
Audio Commentary - This commentary track has music and film experts Nick Redman, John Morgan, Steven C. Smith, and William T. Stromberg, who all talk about the score and Bernard Herrmann's music contribution more than anything. Sure, there are some discussions of the movie and actors, but the focus is on the score here.
Travels of a Gunslinger: The Making of 'Garden of Evil' (SD, 14 Mins.) - This is a bunch of interviews with film historians and the children of Gary Cooper and Henry Hathaway, as they discuss the grueling shooting schedule and filming on location.
Henry Hathaway: When the Going Gets Tough (SD, 12 Mins.) - Hathaway's son and a few other film experts talk about the director and his life.
Susan Hawyward: Hollywood's Straight Shooter (SD, 7 Mins.) - Film historians discuss the life and career of Hayward here.
Trailers (SD, 7 Mins.) - Two trailers and a TV Spot for the film.
Isolated Score Track - Listen to the great score by Bernard Herrmann in DTS-HD MA 3.0 as the movie plays.
Booklet - Illustrated booklet with an essay on the film by Julie Kirgo.
'Garden of Evil' isn't your typical action-adventure western film. It isn't really a big shoot-em up western either. Instead, it's a slower paced movie that is more about the characters falling in love with a married woman with a threat of an Apache attack, than any sort of horse chase or blazing guns film. The CinemaScope widescreen presentation is quite good, and the actors are all excellent here as always. It's just not as action packed as you'd like it to be for a western. The video and audio presentations are both good, and the standard definition extras are worth watching if you're a fan of the filmmakers and actors. Recommended!