Death in the Garden (1956)

Death in the Garden (1956), by Luis Buñuel, is not too color, not too adventursome, nor too surreal in tone ... to be a guest on Classic Film Noir.

Death in the Garden is certainly of the film noir period, and appearing in 1956 it includes and adds to a few of film noir favourite themes, including politics, paranoia, the femme fatale, the innocent charged with crimes they didn't commit, and murder, deceit and a bag of greed.

Never could such color be called film noir, and Death in the Garden is a riot of such raucous Eastmancolor, that you'll be seeing bright green jungles in your dreams, after watching it.

Properly titled Le Mort en ce Jardin, and concerning itself with some rugged intrigue, Death in the Garden is a film of two parts, both of which have much to recommend them. 

There are often political kicks to be made in film noir, and it's the same here. In fact Death in the Garden, it is said, sets out in part to play as a mirror-image of Franco’s Spain from which Buñuel exiled himself. 

The theme of rebellion is to the fore and the state oppressors seem keen not only to snatch each worker's share of the natural world - in this case the men are diamond prospectors - and repress any dissent with force.

Watch out though, Simone Signoret is to hand, and as fate would have it, she has not suffered enough, working as a greedy small time prostitute in this sweaty, greed-riven male outback.

On top of that there are a lot of false accusations made by the violent agents of the state, and it's this that sets the heroic party which flee into the jungle running.

The story of director Luis Buñuel's life is hard to reconcile with the huge amount of work he did, and in many different countries. This was however his life as an exile. Many of film noir's exponents in Hollywood were exiles, usually from Germany. And some were to face exile again, in the 1950s, when the HUAC committee got going.

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939, Buñuel had placed himself at the disposal of the Republican government. The minister for foreign affairs sent him first to Geneva and then to Paris for two years, with the official responsibility for cataloging Republican propaganda films.

Besides the cataloguing, Buñuel took left-wing tracts to Spain, did some occasional spying, acted as a bodyguard, and supervised the making of a documentary, entitled España 1936 in France and Espana leal, ¡en armas! in Spain, that covered the elections, the parades, the riots, and the war.

Simone Signoret

Luis Buñuel functioned as the coordinator of film propaganda for the Republic, which meant that he was in a position to examine all film shot in the country and decide what sequences could be developed and distributed abroad.

The Spanish Ambassador suggested that Buñuel revisit Hollywood where he could give technical advice on films being made there about the Spanish Civil War, and in 1938 he and his family traveled to the United States.

Almost immediately upon his arrival in America the war ended and Hollywood, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America stopped making films about the Spanish conflict.

According to Buñuel's wife, returning to Spain was impossible since the fascists had seized power, and so Buñuel decided to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, saying that he was "immensely attracted by the American naturalness and sociability"

Diamonds on her mind

The exile continued in Mexico,from around 1946 to 1954, when in the mid-1950s, Buñuel got the chance to work again in France on international co-productions. 

The result was what critic Raymond Durgnat has called the director's "revolutionary triptych", in that each of the three films is "openly, or by implication, a study in the morality and tactics of armed revolution against a right-wing dictatorship.

The first film is Cela s'appelle l'aurore (1956) and it required Buñuel and the "pataphysical" writer Jean Ferry to adapt a novel by Emmanuel Roblès after the celebrated writer Jean Genet failed to deliver a script after having been paid in full.

The second film was this one, La Mort en ce jardin (1956), which was adapted by Buñuel and his frequent collaborator Luis Alcoriza from a novel by the Belgian writer José-André Lacour. 

The final part of the triptych was La Fièvre Monte à El Pao (1959), the last film of the popular French star Gérard Philipe, who died in the final stages of the production.

Death in the Garden delivers a great jungle mood, and in the scenes set in the green inferno, the garden of the title, everything is oppressive and extreme.

The best scenes in Death in the Garden are certainly after the dying adventurers discover the crashed aeroplane, the marvel that suddenly revives the cares and trappings of the bourgeois life. The film goes mad, as mad as Micheal Piccoli's priest and a full on exposition of the human condition is made real, with stunning authority.

Surreal feats in the jungle - Death in the Garden (1956)

And as for the Eastmancolor look? Highlight examples of this style are Rebel Without a Cause (Warnercolor 1955) and Bad Day at Black Rock - 1955. It's lurid and undoubtedly a great choice for the green jungle, which is most brilliantly portrayed.

  • Simone Signoret - Djin
  • Charles Vanel - Castin
  • Georges Marchal - Shark
  • Michel Piccoli - Father Lizardi

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