3:10 to Yuma is one of the best of the late '50s Westerns, and is about as handsome as the B&W Western ever got. Low-key performances from an interesting cast back up great work by Van Heflin and Glenn Ford, whose tense angst adds a Noir-ish dimension. It's not as flashy as the color super westerns being made at the time, and it has no particular gimmick to exploit, yet 3:10 to Yuma is more enjoyable than 'meaningful' efforts like The Left-Handed Gun. Taken from a story by the now-revered Elmore Leonard, the show develops a nice little knot of suspense.
The kings of the '50s Western were Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher. Mann's productions got bigger until he graduated to the epic (El Cid); Boetticher stayed with small stories. Sneaking in among them was Delmer Daves, who had started as a Warners' contractee in the '40s, writing and directing wartime tearjerkers (The Very Thought of You) and action films (Destination Tokyo). In the early 50's Daves turned to color Westerns like the interesting Drum Beat and The Last Wagon. He eventually struck gold (or fizzled out) doing glossy Peyton Place imitations like A Summer Place, Parrish and the popular but horrendous Spencer's Mountain. Before the big fizzle he gave us this efficient piece followed by his best Western, The Hanging Tree. The critics never showed much interest in Daves; Andrew Sarris had little to say about him except that his frequent crane shots were 'debasing.'
We know we're in a '50s Western when we hear Frankie Laine, and 3:10 to Yuma has a title song that may make one smile with thoughts of Blazing Saddles. From then on it becomes a tense thriller that just happens to take place in a Western setting. It's a battle of wills between prisoner Glenn Ford, who's determined to escape, and Van Heflin, who's equally committed to making sure he delivers his man to prison.
There's nothing grand in 3:10 to Yuma, no celebration of genre values. Halstead Welles' script, from a story by crime favorite Elmore Leonard (Get Shorty) is down to earth; everyone in the picture has a job and a particularized point of view, even the outlaws. Dan Evans is just a farmer with problems. He does the prisoner escort job mostly out of stubbornness, as opposed to a conscious adherence to a greater truth. His wife (nicely played by Leora Dana of Some Came Running and Tora! Tora! Tora!), purposely made up to be plain-looking, is no whiner like Grace Kelly in High Noon. They're just trying to hold on to their hardscrabble farm in a drought, which makes Dan highly susceptible to Ben's offer of a bribe to let him go. One nice twist of genre conventions is Stage Line owner Mr. Butterfield, a businessman both principled and honorable. He's played against type by stock baddie Robert Emhardt, as is the town drunk played by the familiar Henry Jones, who also specialized in craven characters. 3:10 to Yuma doesn't isolate its hero by surrounding him with worthless help, or saddle him with a sanctimonious code to uphold.
Of special mention is Felicia Farr (Kiss Me Stupid, Charley Varrick), who has a quiet, excellently conveyed one-reel romance with Ford. Delmer Dave's films are known for a lot of windy dialogue but much of this winner is carried by looks and attitudes and moments of silence. The understated sparks between the two inform Ford's character, and help motivate his later actions in a satisfying way.
With its finely judged B&W photography, 3:10 to Yuma has excellent atmosphere. It never seems like a small picture and the Arizona Western town setting familiar from Howard Hawks and Budd Boetticher pictures never looked better. There's a constant feeling of confrontation and far less gunplay than the countless boring oaters that were being made at the time; this one stands out.
Sony's DVD of 3:10 to Yuma is given no extra title on the disc itself, but promotional materials list it as a Special Edition, perhaps to distinguish it from the earlier 2002 Sony release. An original trailer has been added, along with a trailer for the new 2007 remake treated as a special extra. The only other difference between this new release and the first disc is that a full-screen encoding has been dropped. As pointed out to Savant by correspondent Gregory Nichol, perhaps Sony thinks that the film is really called 3:10 to Hong Kong: the Photoshopped package illustration combines images of Van Heflin and Glenn Ford with a grab of a modern Chinese steam locomotive!
The anamorphic picture is exceptionally rich. Charles Lawton photographed the movie in a much more pleasing style than the color-leeched trailer for the new version (which looks like a typical action film bloated bloodbath). The audio, with that melancholy Frankie Laine tune, is as clear as a bell.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,