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 he turned to color Westerns like the interesting Drum Beat and The Last Wagon, and 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.'
You know you're in a '50s Western when you hear Frankie Laine, and 3:10 to Yuma has a title song that may make you smile with thoughts of Blazing Saddles. But from then on the show 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 stubborness, as opposed to any conscious adherance 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 by stock baddie Robert Emhardt against type, 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 one-reel romance with Ford that's excellently conveyed. Delmer Dave's films are known for a lot of authorly 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 presents genre favorite 3:10 to Yuma in both flat and 16:9 widescreen versions, with an anamorphic picture that looks as good as Columbia's studio print. The modest production is far handsomer than classics like John Ford's mostly ugly The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The audio, with that melancholy Frankie Laine tune, is as clear as a bell. There's no 3:10 trailer included, but instead one for Mackenna's Gold and a promo for Silverado.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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