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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Bunuel touch?