DATELINE: Signoret & Marchal in the Garden
Director Luis Bunuel’s reputation after he made Robinson Crusoe in the 1950s was an art-house director in the United States, but a film genius elsewhere. He was all the rage at Harvard’s Brattle Theatre crowd.
So, he was sent back to the jungle in 1956 to make a Mexican-French survivors facing the elements, a subject quite popular back in the ‘50s when a spate of these plane crash movies and South American headhunters took center stage.
Death in the Garden differed a bit. It started out as a political rebellion in a small mining town in the Sierra Madre—and threw together a prostitute who is a bit hard-edged, an adventurer, a priest, an old man and his deaf daughter, into the steamy jungles.
They are chased by military police for reasons both right and wrong, depending on the guilty party.
Bunuel had a couple of curve balls in his arsenal. He had a young (mid-30s) Simone Signoret, fresh off Diabolique and not yet the international star, and a French lookalike of Sterling Hayden, the tough guy Georges Marchal.
Bunuel avoided headhunters, but went for the jugular in the jungle. His characters were literally animals: Shark, Birdie, Father Lizardi, and no one is truly innocent or nice. So, you can expect characters to be picked off, but may have a harder time predicting who will be done in.
Just when it looks like the jungle will do them in, they discover a crashed airplane (from one of those other jungle movies) filled with provisions to give them another chance.
The film is subtler than most American versions of the story circulating in drive-ins of the day—and its cynicism and politics likely keeps it in the sphere of film aficionados, not movie fans. It remains minor Bunuel, but intriguing nonetheless.