There is diamond prospecting organised for this region of South America, which the business involved has been doing very well by, that is until the order comes through from the government to tell them to stop. The prospectors themselves, working by the river, are indignant at this, and set about advancing on the nearby town where the officials have set up as part of the military who now control the area, and the stage looks set for revolution against a strict, even tyrannical regime, especially when the leaders of the prospectors are told nobody will talk to them as long as they carry guns. As they see their weaponry as an important element of their bargaining power, there's a impasse approaching - but also approaching is an opportunist, Chark (Georges Marchal).
Death in the Garden was one of a number of sweaty adventure dramas to emerge from France, or rather places French filmmakers felt like filming across the world, preferably in sunbaked climes, after The Wages of Fear had enjoyed huge international success under the guidance of one of the nation's now-most respected directors, Henri-Georges Clouzot. What was less expected was that the Spanish legend of surrealism and subversive cinema Luis Buñuel would jump on this bandwagon, and this was the result, not a work that is often mentioned in the same breath as his major efforts, most of them in the surrealist vein, though Los Olvidados represented his finest achievement on leaving Europe behind for Central America.
With that latter point in mind, this was identifiably one of the director's endeavours from that part of the world, so perhaps reasoning he was there already and every filmmaker would like a hit, he would put his own spin on this strain of two-fisted adventure yarn. At first glance, there was perhaps not much to separate what was presented here from its contemporaries, indeed from some angles in its early stages it resembled what the Italians would do about the Western come the nineteen-sixties, especially those Mexican revolution tales which would take advantage of Southern Spanish locations to deliver a spot of Marxism to a very American genre. There was certainly an aspect of that here, as Chark initially is landed with the story's disdain.
Why? It's because there is a chance to overthrow an oppressive regime in this unnamed country, but all he is interested in is himself, in spite of having leadership qualities that could have corralled the population, starting with the prospectors, into some form of cohesive force. Thanks to this lack of organisation the uprising is a scrappy one and leads to the deaths of the citizens and the military alike, which led us from what from some angles was starting to look less Spaghetti Western and more one of those Hollywood melodramas from a decade or two before where stars would suffer romantically in exotic surroundings, to what was familiar territory for this French style. That was the jungle excursion, something that would culminate in the deeply unlovely cannibal exploitation flicks of the seventies and eighties.
Death in the Garden, with its title referencing the Garden of Eden, did not go as far as those, though it remained fairly strong, uncompromising stuff for 1956 with its swearing, violence and overt sexuality. The cast was a good one, with Simone Signoret headlining as the prostitute who is the match for Chark since she is only out for herself as well, and Michel Piccoli gave a good account of himself as the priest Lizzardi who is undercut in his authority when he has to move to save the old geezer scapegoated for starting the increasingly thwarted revolt. He was played by Charles Vanel, who had actually been in The Wages of Fear, and in a curious move he shared scenes with Michèle Girardon as his beautiful deaf mute daughter, not the sort of character you were accustomed to seeing in this context. That lengthy stretch when the main players were stuck trying to escape through the jungle was worth waiting for, having precisely zero romantic ideas of how harsh nature can be - did a young Werner Herzog see this? But if it was second division Luis Buñuel, that can be more interesting than a lot of director's triumphs. Music by Paul Misraki.
Aka: La mort en ce jardin
[Eureka's Masters of Cinema Blu-ray has a few featurettes as extras, including interviews with critic Tony Rayns and star Michel Piccoli, charming and sharp-witted in his nineties. The film has been restored: the majority of shots look very fine indeed.]