Friday, December 11, 2009


Meet Luis Bunuel, action film maker. The way I hear it, the success of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Wages of Fear created a demand in France for hard-boiled adventure films set in Latin America. To satisfy that demand, a French production team went to Mexico to hook up with Don Luis and adapt Jose-Andre Lacour's novel, a gritty tale of greed and unrest in an unnamed banana republic. Bunuel's was but one of several pairs of hands assigned to the adaptation, and it'd be a stretch to call it a personal project of his. But it has some of his characteristic touches and it turns out to be a pretty good adventure film with a very hard-boiled attitude.

The funny thing about it, in retrospect, is that the filmmakers apparently had impeccable leftist credentials, yet La Mort en ce Jardin is a film you could show at a National Rifle Association convention to stormy applause. The setting is a diamond mining camp where the hardworking freelance prospectors, many of whom are French expatriates, are being forced from their claims by the local dictatorship, which has decided to claim all the local resources for itself. What are the expropriated workers going to do about it? They're going to get guns, of course, and as many as they can, even if that means ambushing soldiers and stealing their weapons. After embarrassing themselves initially by being scared off by a warning volley, the miners work themselves up into a small-scale civil war. Maybe it says something about the American left that they don't trust the proletariat with guns. Leftists elsewhere apparently aren't as worried by that prospect, or weren't back in 1956.

Street fighting men in Death in the Garden

Caught in the middle of this conflict are the actual protagonists of the story. Castin (Charles Vanel), an elderly miner with a teenage deaf-mute daughter, claims to be a peaceable man but feels compelled to stand with his fellow miners despite his dream of returning to France to open a restaurant. Chark (pronounced "shark" and played by Georges Marchal) is a drifter who strolls into town during the first confrontation, gives the finger to authority and teases Maria, Castin's daughter, as she tries on a pair of boots in the general store. He has a wallet full of money wrapped around his chest, but stupidly reveals that fact to Djin (Simone Signoret, claiming that the name is an Indian word for a bird), a local prostitute who promptly rats him out to the police, who suspect him of being a bank robber. Castin wants Djin to marry and return to France with him and be a mother to Maria, but Djin wants to know what's in it for her. Father Lizzardi the young local priest (Michel Piccoli) wants the miners (and Castin especially) to stand down for their own good, and is manipulated by Chark into aiding his escape from prison.

Our hero: Chark introduces himself.

As Djin, Simone Signoret perhaps purposefully lacks the glamour of a true femme fatale, but she's the nearest thing this film has to one.

Both Chark and Castin end up accused of being ringleaders of the miners' insurrection, and end up as fugitives on a boat owned by Cenco, a local pimp and informer. The wounded Castin had taken shelter with Djin after a pitched battle, and Lizzardi had sacrificed his reputation to save Castin by allowing townsfolk to believe that he was having a tryst with Djin. The priest ends up on the boat in order to do mission work among the jungle tribes, while Djin comes on board to smuggle Castin without the greedy, reward-hungry Cenco noticing his presence. But eventually Castin and Chark have to boat-jack Cenco and ditch the ship to escape speedboat pursuers. Thus begins a hellish trek through the jungle during which our cast endures lack of food and shelter and Castin slowly goes mad. Chark may be a tough guy (especially when avenging himself on a helpless Djin) and good with a gun, but he's no better at jungle survival than the rest.

Their salvation comes with a grim irony as they end up owing their lives to other people's deaths. They find the wreckage of a passenger plane that crashed in the jungle and had not been found until then. Strewn about are suitcases filled with food -- and high quality food, too, with champagne -- as well as new outfits for Djin and Maria. And not far away is the passage to Brazil and freedom. But this salvation proves short-lived for most of the cast, as at least one of them is too far gone to recover his reason or civilization....

Above, Michel Piccoli finds something terrible to pray over in the plane wreckage. Below, something more terrible preys in the wreckage before the film is over.

The plane wreck may come from the novel, but the idea of these hapless pilgrims saving themselves by becoming parasites and imitating the people whose remains they exploit strikes me as a Bunuel touch. There's something somewhere between surrealism and satire about it that elevates this overall effective adventure to another level. Maybe the general irreverence of the film is also characteristic. When Lizzardi visits Chark in his cell, he tries to give a dying fellow-prisoner the last rites only to be told off by the moribund man. Nevertheless, Lizzardi is a sympathetic character, though consistently shown as well-meaning but either ineffectual or superfluous. In one scene the starving fugitives are trying to cook a snake, but can't find dry leaves or branches because of the last night's rain. Lizzardi tentatively reaches into his duffel bag and prepares to make a great sacrifice. He tears a blank page from his personal Bible as kindling, but finds that the others have managed to start the fire. With visible relief he replaces the page, but then notices that fire ants have swarmed all over the snake meat. Later, he manages to dig up a tuber of some kind and happily shares it with Maria, only to be upstaged by Chark's discovery of the goodies from the plane wreck.

The Bunuel touch?

I wouldn't dare call Death in the Garden a great Bunuel film but it is a solid piece of entertainment, not unlike something you might find in an American paperback original from the same period. It has some nice outdoor cinematography by Jorge Stahl Jr. that reminds one more of The African Queen than The Wages of Fear. In the studio scenes it has the lurid look of many a Forties Technicolor film, and that adds to the pulp feel of the story. Marchal and Signoret are fine as a couple who oscillate from mutual hatred to the sexual attraction of fellow predators, and Piccoli is quite good as the most likely audience-identification character. Bunuel doesn't direct action dynamically, preferring single takes to editing, but he keeps the frame busy with harsh activity in the combat scenes. It may be worth noting that Chark stabs a prison guard in the eye with a fountain pen, but the director of the most famous eye-injury scene in all cinema plays it safe this time, filming the attack from behind the victim's head. Despite that reticence, this really is a kick-ass movie for those with hard-boiled tastes. I haven't seen too many Bunuel's movies, but I imagine it's his most accessible film. As such, it might be a good way to introduce dubious newcomers to one of cinema's great eccentric talents.


Sam Juliano said...

"Bunuel doesn't direct action dynamically, preferring single takes to editing, but he keeps the frame busy with harsh activity in the combat scenes."

Indeed Samuel, but this is really a pedestrian entry in one of European art cinema's most enthralling canons. When you pose at the end of your stupendously fecond and exhaustive review that this may be a good way to introduce people to the director, I would advise against it, as its a conventional piece devoid of the philosophical underpinnings that make this great director such a favorite with the art house crowd. His greatest Mexican film is LOS OLVIDADOS, a scathing study of juvenile delinquency that is full of metaphorical imagery and the usual attack on the Catholic Church. But it's really amazing that you took on this relatively obscure film, even for fans of the director.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I definitely wouldn't offer it to anyone as a representative Bunuel film, but I might recommend it to people outside the "art house crowd" who, finding themselves entertained by it or intrigued by its hard-boiled attitude, might be willing to give the director's more thematically adventurous work a try. I came across it courtesy of the Albany Public Library, which has a steadily growing Bunuel collection which is now clearly stretching beyond the art-house canon.