Garden of Evil (1954): Starring Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark

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It does feel like one of the grand old westerns we left behind in more recent years. It’s a big picture in the horizontal majesty of widescreen, Glorious Technicolor, backed by the only score Bernard Hermann would ever arrange for the West. There’s little doubt we are in for a spectacle of the highest order.

Maybe Richard Widmark doesn’t look as good in color as the shrouds of noir, but he can act. Here he’s a poker player who fancies himself a poet on the side. As he gets off at an isolated Mexican outpost, he’s yakking away to the typically taciturn Gary Cooper. The taller fellow plods by his side quietly amused by everything coming out of the Widmark’s mouth.

They are joined by a third man (Cameron Mitchell) biding their time en route to the goldfields of California by listening to the floor show (Rita Moreno) at the local cantina. I do relish films that take place in multiple languages; perhaps it humbles me. Because as I’m no longer living near a Latino community and I haven’t studied in a long time, my Spanish is rusty, so I can only pick up bits and pieces. I am at the mercy of others.

But it also means Gary Cooper can pay a major service to the audience. He translates for us and with that comes an added depth to his character. He’s knowledgeable and must have been around. How does he know the language? We don’t know right off so it teases us to stick around in order to find out.

It’s quite relaxing until Susan Hayward bursts in on the men, effectively dropping the whole reason for the picture right in their laps. An adventure is afoot, and they take it up with few reservations. It doesn’t seem to cross their minds to question any of it; the compensation waved in front of them is high enough. Maybe they maintain their own private reasons. Soon they’re journeying through a mountain pass in order to help save the woman’s stranded husband (Hugh Marlowe).

A perfect moment on the road — making sure we’re aware of the stakes — features a dislodged frying pan clattering down below, ricocheting off the rock faces, and echoing through the canyon as it makes its descent.

As things progress, it becomes apparent the fine line between brooding and dull is a difficult one. It certainly is, more often than not, a slow burn with Widmark waxing philosophical and Cooper projecting an air of constant clear-sightedness about the world. He never loses his head. The rest of the time we’re waiting for something.

The confrontation between Hooker (Cooper) and the hothead Daly (Mitchell) is a particular sequence to relish as the young gun not once, but twice, is sent somersaulting on his back — his butt nearly putting out the fire and getting singed as a result. By the end of his drubbing, he’s practically rolling in it, and he’s been made to look terribly foolish.

But like Way of The Gaucho, the on-location shooting is what the movie can boast about the most. The action is middling and dull at best, because it’s a long haul to get a payoff.  We are waiting for things to come to a head and while Indians are said to be brewing up in the hills, they only show themselves briefly.

Oddly, Susan Hayward is thanklessly cast as the villain-turned-hero. Maybe it has to do with the time the picture came out since she hardly gets the delicious part of a femme fatale. More often than not, she feels like a scapegoat, that is until everyone realizes how faithful she is. It’s too little too late.

By the end of the story, the emotions lack resonance, because they haven’t built up into anything truly believable with continuity we can easily trace. It does feel a bit like running through the paces just to get to the marks, and it’s difficult to say given the talent on hand. They are a fine host of actors.

It’s possible to cast a bit of the blame on Frank Fenton’s script, which has fun with some dialogue — getting a bit profound about male avarice and passion — while supplying the actual plot little meat.

Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark too were always men of action, but there’s not enough here for them to accomplish. By the time they have chances to do what is purportedly brave and heroic, the deep recesses of meaning looking to be excavated are hollow — even strangely so, because we truly want there to be more, and there isn’t.

3/5 Stars

Review: Night and The City (1950)

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I’m not sure why but like Tommy Udo, the name Harry Fabian always stays with me when I think of Richard Widmark. One is the apex of sadistic evil and the other an archetypical noir hero met with utter calamity.

It’s true that for those who know a bit of the oeuvre of American director Jules Dassin, Night and the City might be perceived as a new rendition of The Naked City (1947). However, instead of New York, the suburban jungle of a thousand stories captured in documentary-like realism, we are given instead London, in all of its seedy glory, warts and all.

It’s fitting we meet Harry Fabian on the run from some unseen pursuer and whether someone is there or not hardly matters because that’s just Harry. The life he leads means he’s always in a jam with someone and always looking for the next big scheme to get him out of the doghouse. One might say he knows the dives of London like the back of his hand. He frequents them often trying to drum up business.

Because Harry is Widmark certainly at his most charismatic, an artist without an art and a constant idea man floundering in hot water every minute of the day. Like all such figures, he aspires to be something more than what he is. We’ve seen it many times before. For no conceivable rational reason except love, Mary (Gene Tierney), a nightclub singer, has remained faithfully by his side, despite all his flaky tendencies.

The mad chemist cooking upstairs also proves to be a pretty nice guy who cares deeply about Mary’s well-being. Especially since it seems that she is so easily tossed around by Harry. He doesn’t seem to care for her well. In fact, if we can cast it as such Harry is the Homme Fatale, even a slightly sympathetic one, while Adam (Hugh Marlowe) is his utter contrast in every way — the man who seems to have nothing but Mary’s goodwill in mind, even if he is in love with her too.

“The Silver Fox” is an underground tavern with some small consequence to the plot. Because you see, under the grubby hands of portly Phil Nosseross and his opportunistic and manipulative wife (Googie Withers), Harry works a hustle.  He drums up business like an all-purpose promoter, fishing around for unsuspecting out-of-towners and worming his way into their confidence. Meanwhile, Mary remains the main attraction with a floor show. They do quite well. Mary has scrimped and saved a great deal but Harry is still unsatisfied. It’s all small potatoes.

He’s waiting for the next great lightning rod of inspiration to strike and of all places, it comes at the fights. A big-time promoter (Herbert Lom) tells him to keep away because he’s already profiled Fabian as a no-good scrounger who cannot be trusted. He’s not wrong. However, Harrys a quick wit when he needs to be, instantly gaining the favor of formerly renowned wrestler Gregorius.

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Not only is he disillusioned with the way that modern wrestling bouts are fought, he also has a young pupil named Nikolai who he deems can take on any man. What makes his stamp of approval stick is the very fact the old man happens to be Kristos’s dearly beloved father. If Harry has this formidable ally in his corner he’s got it made.

Soon all the cash he can lay his greasy paws on is sunk in Fabian’s Promotions, even coaxing the boss’s conniving wife for a bankroll. He’s got his angle; he’s got his shield to help him shoulder his way into the wrestling game. It’s a cinch. But he’s also got everything riding on this endeavor because that’s his game. Go big and risk the chance of falling flat on his face.

So with Kristos all but threatening his life and a scorned husband pulling out his backing unless Harry can land The Strangler (Mike Mazursky), a competitor Gregorius has little taste for, that’s the end. The utter elation is Harry pulling a miracle out of his hat for the fight of a lifetime but just as easily the rug gets pulled from under him. Fate is a cruel taskmaster.

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Now a price sits on his head which essentially means he’s a dead duck. His dreams of success evaporate instantly. In the latter stages of the film, Widmark scrambles around London down all the back alleyways and abandoned brickyards he can. But everything he does seems futile. He has no friends with that much money at stake. The irony is that even Harrys last foolproof scheme doesn’t take when he pretends Mary is turning him over to Kristos for the cash. It wasn’t to be. For their love or for Harry. Noir is nothing without a heavy dose of fatalistic tragedy to become its ultimate undoing. Night and the City is little different.

As the story goes, Jules Dassin would be blacklisted during the production of the picture and therefore had no hand in the editing or scoring, at least to his liking. Thus, we have two distinct cuts. Otherwise, after a rough patch stricken by the Blacklist, he got back to work in France with the deeply revered Riffifi (1955). His career would have a second life all throughout Europe, yes, but for all intent and purposes, his days of hardboiled American noirs were over for good. All in all, he left behind a stellar body of work during the late 1940s. Night and the City remains a testament to a perennially underrated director.

4/5 Stars

Note: I watched the British version with a score by George Frankel opposed to a different American cut with slightly different footage and score by Franz Waxman.

Review: All About Eve (1950)

“FastEveEveMargotCasswellWitten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” ~ Margo Channing

It’s cliche, I do admit, but they simply do not make films like this anymore. Stories about people talking where the actors take center stage. In this case, the story from Joseph L. Mankiewicz is about the Broadway stage and all that happens behind the curtains, in the dressing rooms, and behind the closed doors of the royalty of that profession.There is so much that could be dissected, antagonized over, or acknowledged so I will move through it the best way I know how.

A moment must be spent acknowledging that this is the film that revitalized the career of Bette Davis. She was the tops during the 30s and early 40s, but the role of the histrionic stage icon Margo Channing was her comeback and it thoroughly suited Davis. I have actually never been a fan of hers because I always found her rather arrogant and she scares me visually. However, All About Eve plays on my personal sentiments wonderfully. When we’re first introduced to Margo, she’s everything we expect in a Bette Davis character, and truth be told I don’t really like her. But interestingly enough that changes. That’s where Eve and the rest of the cast come in.

The film is book-ended by the wonderfully wry and snooty commentary of theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He makes it his mission to rake every new play over the coals, and he can be merciless. But he also is a great ally and he proves so for young Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Because, after all, this film is her story, we just don’t quite understand why at the beginning.

Eve came from humble roots and was the most devoted young fan of Margo Channing. She would attend every one of her performances and wait outside her dressing room timidly, just to get a glimpse of the star. One of Margo’s best friends Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) was accustomed to seeing the girl and in a kindly gesture she invited Eve up to the dressing room. And just like that Eve had her backstage pass into this world rounded out by Margo Channing, Karen, her husband the playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe), and the young director Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill) who also happens to be Margo’s suitor.

She begins unassuming enough on the outskirts of their little group. Always seen, not heard. Always thoughtful and ready to be of service. Eve takes on the role of Margo’s personal assistant just like that and an ego like Channing doesn’t mind. In fact, everyone seems to like having her around except the skeptical Birdie (embodied by the always spunky Thelma Ritter).

As time marches on, Eve loses her charm. More and more it feels as if she’s analyzing Margo. Watching her every move. Monitoring her success and slowly moving in. She plants the idea that she can be the next understudy and so it is. One fateful night Karen agrees to stall Margo and Eve gets her big chance as an understudy. She of course politely invites all the major critics to see the performance. It was the conscientious thing to do after all. Ironically, it’s at this point where things turn. Margo becomes the victim and in her great vulnerability, while sharing with Karen, we begin to sympathize with this woman hiding behind the facade of Margo Channing. Meanwhile, Eve continues her ascent using whatever means possible. She alienates Margo and begins driving a wedge between the always amiable working relationship of Lloyd and Bill. Eve even resorts to blackmail and home wrecking sharing her master plot with Addison.

She’s used everybody else and so he seems like the next logical target. However, he’s too much like her. He’s too cynical to fall for her act, and he points out a few chinks in her armor. So like that we end up back at the award ceremony where Eve is about to win her big award. Now we know all the clawing and backstabbing it took for her to get there. Now all that is veiled under her perfectly demure features and charming voice. But we see it on the faces of all the ones who sit there knowingly. Each one knows all too well the damage that this girl has done. She came out of the woodwork, used and abused them because everything was about Eve. Nothing else mattered to her.

But the beauty of the film’s ending is that the cycle continues. Margo is fading away yes, and Eve is taking her place, but that means that there are more Eves where she came from. Young girls obsessed with stardom, fame, and success. It’s a frightening evolution and it proves to be a sharp indictment of the industry as a whole.

The five leads are solid and their performances shift as the Margo-Eve dynamic fluctuates. However, George Sanders is possibly the most enjoyable character, because, despite his cruel wit, he’s the one who is outside of Eve’s influence, or at least he catches her in her charade. There’s something utterly satisfying in that. Also, he has some memorable moments alongside the aspiring Ms. Casswell (none other than the show-stopping Marilyn Monroe in an early role). So really this is a film about the performances and they are well worth it because they suggest that in such a cultured world, so many things lurk under the surface. It might be insecurity, fear, suppressed desire, or savagery. Humanity is most definitely messy, you just have to look behind the curtain sometimes.

5/5 Stars