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"I want you to understand one thing. If you start across this eight feet between us, I'm gonna pull both triggers at once."
When genre film criticism had its first flowering in the late 1960s, the Hollywood western was debated from every possible angle. Critics in the U.K. argued the relative merits of Old Guard representatives John Ford and Howard Hawks, in contrast with later specialists Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and the then-new genius on the block, Sam Peckinpah. Omitted from the accolades was writer-director Delmer Daves. A product of the studio system at Warner Bros., Daves had made his name writing and directing in a variety of styles. He directed nine westerns from 1950 to 1959, starting with Broken Arrow, a big hit for 20th Fox. The best of these carried the credit of screenwriter Halstead Welles: 1959's The Hanging Tree and the practically perfect western gem 3:10 to Yuma, released by Columbia in 1957. Starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, the film also marked the first movie sale for writer Elmore Leonard, then a specialist in western tales.
A drought has caused many ranches to fail. Barely holding his ranch together, Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his young sons witness the robbing of a stage outside the town of Bisbee. Two men are killed. The thieves pass through town to put the marshal on the wrong scent, but their leader Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) is captured when he stays behind to court young bartender Emmy (Felicia Farr). Dan takes on the dangerous task of escorting Wade to Contention, there to catch the train to the penitentiary at Yuma. Armed only with a shotgun, his only assistant is the town drunk, Alex Potter (Henry Jones). If Wade's gang catches up with the deputy and his prisoner, Dan hasn't got a chance.
The atmospheric 3:10 to Yuma knows exactly what it's doing, from its initial B&W image of the dry, cracked earth of Dan Evans' ranch. The Ned Washington - George Duning title tune is sung by Frankie Laine, whose style was later lampooned in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. Yet the song is so perfectly matched to the images that nobody would think of laughing. The film's one-man-alone situation has drawn comparisons to Fred Zinnemann's High Noon, but Yuma is a tale of pragmatic survival, not social criticism.
Elmore Leonard and Halsted Welles present Dan Evans as a good man faced with grinding realities. If it doesn't rain soon his little ranch will be finished. His kids don't understand that he's in no position to oppose a gang of outlaws. Even Dan's loyal wife Alice (Leora Dana) knows that he must escort Ben Wade to justice, as the money offered by the stage line owner Butterfield (Robert Emhardt) will buy needed water for their cattle. Locked together in a tiny hotel room to await the 3:10 train, Dan can't avoid Ben Wade's ever-more logical arguments for letting him go.
Van Heflin was at his best playing characters caught in a moral gray zone, as seen in his excellent portrayal of a 'terrorist' Southern officer charged with burning a Vermont town in Hugo Fregonese's Civil War tale The Raid. Dan Evans' personal code doesn't allow him to let Ben Wade buy his freedom, or put an end to the risk by simply killing the outlaw. He's a principled man carrying a disagreeable job through to the bitter end. Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo is always cited as a rebuttal to the defeatist civics lesson presented in Carl Foreman's High Noon, but 3:10 to Yuma is a much more reasoned response. Both films conclude with the hero's wife rushing to his side. Grace Kelly decides not to abandon Gary Cooper, but Dan's wife Alice simply wants to reinforce her support for him. Alice earlier declared that when faced with trouble, "we must be able to do more than just stand by and watch." Dan is determined to get Ben on that train even after Butterfield offers him an easy out, on principle alone: a brave man has already died trying to help him.
Glenn Ford may not have been as versatile an actor as Van Heflin, but he was second to nobody when it came to projecting star charisma. Wade has proven his ruthlessness by shooting two men during the stage holdup, settling an awkward standoff. One of them was one of his own gang member, who foolishly let himself be taken hostage. Alice knows this, and she still finds Ben interesting. Ben also clicks with the attractive bartender Emmy. As soon as their eyes meet, he's willing to risk everything to spend some time with her. Ben's gang, headed by the no-nonsense killer Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel) wouldn't dream of questioning his judgment on either decision.
3:10 to Yuma is a modern western in that its theme is less concerned with the winning of the West, than the non-epic reality of the hard life on the frontier. The sterling example of the traditional approach is George Stevens' magnificent Shane, which also stars Van Heflin as a westerner trying to live off the land. Despite some realistic trimmings, Shane sticks close to the romantic western tradition, from its Technicolor scenery to Alan Ladd's nearly-superhuman hero. It subscribes to the formula that making the West a decent place to live requires a Manichean conflict between good and evil. By contrast, the people in 3:10 to Yuma are just trying to scrape out a living and hold onto their personal integrity. The drunken Alex Potter isn't used as comedy relief, and the rich owner of the stagecoach line is not set up to be a capitalist villain. The drama is personal, not political, and the film reaches its satisfying conclusion without resorting to a single western formula cliché.
The splendid B&W cinematography of Charles Lawton Jr. captures the Arizona desert at all times of day. At the finale one can almost smell the freshness of the desert rain. Delmer Daves' sensitive direction earned critical praise, while some reviewers took exception to his frequent use of crane shots to enforce a 'big country' epic western feel on his small-scale show. But for the dramatic final confrontation, Daves keeps his camera down close to the action.
Criterion's Blu-ray of 3:10 to Yuma is such a handsome B&W transfer that we we're glad the film wasn't made in color. The proper widescreen (1:85) aspect ratio frames scenes more tightly than they once were on television, with the result that we pay more attention to the eyes of the characters as they read each other's expressions. Glenn Ford and Felicia Farr's terrific scene in the lonely saloon is driven by glances that reveal intimate feelings.
The extras consist of a new pair of interviews. Author Elmore Leonard remembers his pressing need to make a film sale, as the western fiction pulps he was writing for paid only two cents a word. He was pleased by the movie adaptation, and praises new scenes added by screenwriter Halstead Welles. He has fewer kind words for the 2007 remake, which ends with Ben Wade pointlessly shooting all of his own men. When Leonard asked why the character would do such a thing, the writers of the remake replied, "That's what the director wanted."
A second interview is with Peter Ford, the author of a recent biography of his actor father. Ford candidly describes the actor as a good judge of his own limitations, who frequently cut down his scripted dialogue because he "only had one speed" of line delivery. At the time Ford was one of the most popular stars in town. He had recently impressed his Hollywood peers by acting opposite Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon, and earning more flattering reviews than did his intimidating co-star.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
3:10 to Yuma Blu-ray rates:
A note I really liked from friend Craig Reardon (who I don't reprint enough here) May 22, 2013:
"Yuma Man, Glenn" .... I know, I need to enroll in 'Bad Pun Makers Anonymous'.
Naturally I refer to your review of 3:10 to Yuma, a great movie to be sure. Not only are the visuals beautiful from the very first shot, but another thing that boosts this film at the beginning is that Columbia was beginning to get on the bandwagon to break away from the old norm of 'same old titles'. I'm an old fan of the psychological impact of titles and particularly fonts, which Mad Ave. has known for decades. The wonderfully understated late-19th century font used for 3:10" begins to ease you into the period.
Likewise underrated is Columbia house composer Duning. I got to see him when he participated in the late Tony Thomas's really epic seminar about film music in the late '70s, held over several nights at the old Director's Guild Theater on Melrose. Duning was a conservative-looking guy and absolutely looked the part of a member of his generation, a man who was a trumpet player in one of the big bands, and occasionally contributed arrangements. He was very plain-spoken and soft-spoken. Very much like his contemporary Hank Mancini (except in the latter's prolific ability to write great songs), Duning had a firm grasp of the modern idiom both in popular and semi-classical respects. Listen to his fantastic fanfare at the beginning of From Here to Eternity. In military fashion, you 'get' the sense of standing at attention --- even your neck hair is standing at attention. Tellingly, Duning also wrote the wonderfully relaxed ditty, Re-Enlistement Blues which so evocatively colors some of the scenes and is expertly re-harmonized to communicate a sense of fate and disaster as the wounded Prue defies the security alert to rejoin his regiment. I love 3:10 to Yuma as it is conformist in respect to emulating the '50s title song rage inflamed by Dimitri Tiomkin's incredible success with Do Not Forsake Me, et al, but to me conclusively proves the force and essential participation of music in a conventional, tightly-knit drama like this one.
The great thing about the best studio movies is that you have to take them as they are. More critics of our generation are finally doing what those in the previous one consistently failed to do, and that is to reckon it all in. Thanks to using their noodles, they recognize what's affected them. They've broken away from the 'director is God' / Andrew Sarris dogma, or the equally-simplistic idea that great stars carry everything all by themselves. Great directors DID make a difference, and heaven knows the stars did, too. But finally the other contributors are routinely acknowledged even when not given the same proportion of praise. At the end of this movie, the images, the acting (those faces), the sense of surprise and relief, the music, all conspire to make it a magnificent, clean, rewarding experience. You don't feel manipulated or taken advantage of; you feel satisfied. I heard some things about the remake, including the death of the character played by Heflin, and I just spared myself the disgust of getting anywhere near it. I'm beginning to feel, and I mean this, that nobody under the age of 70 should remake anything, ever again. On the evidence. Unless there's an absolutely great remake of a great earlier film, done by someone our age or younger, that I'm unaware of.
I apologize for forgetting the source(s), but some thoughts re: Glenn Ford. First that Jack Lemmon was not too happy playing with him in Cowboy because of the attentions he'd paid Felicia Farr. Going by Peter Ford's surprising revelation that his father had practically made a side career of seducing as many of his leading ladies as he could, and kept scrupulous (there's a contradiction in terms) records in a private diary, one wonders if he'd managed to add Farr to his trophies. She was a very sexy young lady, then. I'm actually not certain when Lemmon came into her picture and vice-versa.
As far as Brando is concerned, I remember reading his recollections of Ford, poking fun at him for being more concerned about which side of his face played to the camera, claiming that he'd been kicked in the head by a horse in one of his Westerns and that this had left one side slightly immobile. It's too tempting to comment on this. My response, since I can out-mean even Brando on a bad day, would be "300 lbs." You know... Brando's weigh-in in his later years. Brando, no vanity? No neuroses? No flaws? Better throw some water on me to stop me from laughing hysterically. It's just that it's amusing to see when one of these sacred monsters goes up against another. --- Craig
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