The stark poetry of the Hollywood western remains as iconic and American as the essential fabric of the nation that spawned it. Indeed, director Edwin S. Porter’s enduring early silent masterpiece, The Great Train Robbery (1903) solidified the importance of the western genre long before even the classification of ‘western’ could be accurately ascribed. Throughout Hollywood’s golden age the western remained indigenous to the American experience; somehow more American than even America itself; amplifying the legends of cowboys and Indians, stagecoaches and desperadoes, lusty saloon madams, vibrant gamblers and Jim Dandies; its rural, rugged manliness often romanticized all out of proportion, though occasionally given just the right flourish to make its established themes (bordering on clichés) live, or at least give the appearance of a more genuine verisimilitude (usually by the likes of a John Ford or Raoul Walsh). By the mid-1950’s, the western was to undergo a renaissance – or rather, a re-envisioning.
Like that other movement almost subliminally infiltrating with ever-increasing regularity throughout the 1940’s (collectively lumped together, and years later coined by the French as ‘film noir’) the schematics of the Hollywood western underwent a metamorphosis; increasingly exposing harsher realities about the frontier. The glamor of the western hero remained intact…sort of… although on occasion, as in John Ford’s iconic The Searchers (1956) even it was challenged, taking no less an authority than John ‘Duke’ Wayne and distilling with great ambiguity Wayne’s own well-established and larger-than-life presence into that of an impenetrable racist. With a general shift in world-weary morality and socio-political dissatisfaction growing in post-war/cold war America the founding principles of the Hollywood western became entangled in their own ennui of foundering, or even seriously disturbed (anti)heroes; men of blind arrogance and fortitude far more complex than their pre-war counterparts. The dry rot of tumbleweed blowing loosely through makeshift towns on the verge of extinction replaced the clear-eyed optimist and ‘go west, young man’ promises made only a scant ten years before.
While the 1960’s would increasingly represent the western landscape as a rather Darwinian vacuum of perilous/lawless iniquity, for a period of about four years starting in 1956 the Hollywood western morphed into a rather fascinating exercise in psychological melodrama. In the thick of things came Delmar Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957), an exemplar of the classic western hero turned asunder. From the moment our ineffectual homesteader, Dan Evans (Van Heflin) accepts what amounts to a dare - to see justice prevail by escorting notorious desperado, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to Yuma (to stand trial for the robbery of a stagecoach in which the driver, Bill Moon (Boyd Stockman) was rather callously shot dead) he assumes the mantel of the classic western figure; the forthright family man to whom, arguably, the future belongs. Clairvoyance to see the thing through is hard won, however, and fraught with demons – both without and within – as Ben tempts Dan with the prospect of riches in exchange for his looking the other way; in effect, to do right by his noble wife, Alice (Leora Dana) whom Ben increasingly suggests has been put upon and made sacrifices for having married this pious man.
The question, as to whether it is nobler to live plainly but honestly or set the terms of life by which all others must either follow or be crushed in the onslaught continues to eat away at Dan’s already fragile self-reliance and inner resolve. Ultimately, he bases his decisions on an intuitive wit and rebirth of that masculine spirit he surrendered from his youth when he decided to settle down and start a family of his own. In many ways 3:10 to Yuma occupies common ground with Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952); another tale of a man besought on all sides by personal failings and promises made that ultimately he cannot keep for the sake of his own sanity and self-respect. Yet, unlike High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma is primarily a tale of male camaraderie of the unlikeliest sort; one man’s personal conviction altering the terms of surrender and, in fact, and even more miraculously, besting the villain’s intentions through contemplation – if, at the point of a gun.
In Van Heflin and Glenn Ford, Delmar Daves is immeasurably blessed. Ford, in particular, manages to exude a rather despicably oily, calculating and very cold-blooded charm; strangely appealing while remaining wholly disquieting. Ford, whose backstage badinage with many a leading lady kept him about as far removed from the persona of a loyal husband and father in real life seems to have tapped into a deeper angst as he manages to convey a sense of sad-eyed acknowledgement for the path Ben Wade’s wayward life’s work has taken him. Ben Wade is truly a man alone, and proves it when he surrenders to Heflin’s ever-true homesteader – even allowing his right-hand gunslinger, Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel) to die in his place; perhaps admiring of Dan’s impenetrable bonds to home and family. It’s a mesmerizing performance; the veneer between Ford and his character tissue paper thin.
Van Heflin’s Dan is as compelling but for entirely different reasons; chiefly because we can see the inner cogs of his careworn emasculation excruciatingly grind to a complete halt; nowhere more on display than during the scene in the bridal suite in Contention City after Ben suggests everyone will be better off – most of all, Alice – if Dan agrees to sell his soul for a few silver pieces and the fickle promise that his life will be spared. It is this Christ-like temptation brokered by the devil incarnate that restores Dan’s faith in himself, although for several long and prepossessing moments we are not entirely certain he will do the right thing. Ultimately, Dan digs deep into his shame and conflicted emotions. Van Heflin’s eight miles of bad road appearance, complete with swollen eyes that look as though he hasn’t slept for more than a consecutive hour or two in many a long year, helps to augment Dan’s epic struggle. But Heflin also manages to convey so much more self-loathing and pity with an ornery glance of those hard-boiled orbs. It could have been a silent movie, in fact, and we could still understand the motivations of his character – his intuition decisively captured, haunted, painful and real.
While Glenn Ford began his career basically playing variations of the slick and methodical schemer who repents in the final reel, Heflin started out very much playing similarly-minded cads before graduating into meatier roles like this one. His Dan Evans is seething with rage - most of it burrowing like a cancer from within. Having failed to provide anything beyond the barest of essentials for his blossoming family, Dan regards himself as a flop. The fact that Alice and their two sons, Mathew (Barry Curtis) and Mark (Jerry Hartleben) seem oblivious to Dan’s inner turmoil only exaggerates his level of urgency, anxiety and sense of duty. But what if to do right by his family Dan must commit a wrong in the eyes of the law? At the crux of Delmar Daves complex and astute masterwork is the underlying thread that a man without conviction is no man at all - merely a pawn to be exploited, pitied and ultimately discarded for profit.
There is little to suggest that Glenn Ford’s wily desperado, Ben Wade will afford Heflin’s man of wavering virtue the promised monies to sustain his family for the foreseeable future in exchange for his own freedom. After all, Ben has Dan outnumbered and surrounded. And yet he makes one of the most convincing arguments to negate virtue as its own reward. Halsted Welles’ screenplay, based on Elmore Leonard’s blistering short story about two men caught in a struggle of wills, repeatedly tests the resolve of both Ben and Dan in interesting ways; particularly Heflin’s internally tormented farmer who has mortgaged his entire future on the unlikely prospect that it will pour rain in the bone-dry Arizona landscape, thus saving him from utter financial ruin. From this perspective alone, Ben’s promise of easy money simply to turn and look the other way seems practically a sure thing. But Ben’s posse, fronted by Charlie Prince proves the great leveler in helping Dan make up his mind. And Ben, for all his boastful talk, seemingly heartless actions and extremely clever inducements is rather benignly resolved to his fate; in the last act even betting against the odds while doing his best to see to it that Alice Evans does not wind up a widow.
3:10 to Yuma opens small and increasingly pulls back from extolling the vastness of the barren, dust-filled tundra. Delmar Daves, a master of melodrama, gets inside these characters’ heads and picks apart their festering afterthoughts. Immediately following George Dunings’ superbly woeful ballad and main titles we are plunged into this vacant panorama of Arizona territory, circa 1880 – the scene, familiar; - the scenario, deceptively more so. For on this fateful afternoon the local stagecoach carrying the stage line manager, Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt) and a cash advance is held up by Ben Wade and his posse just beyond the cattle ranch of Dan Evans. The driver, Bill Moon makes a valiant attempt to thwart the theft by taking one of Ben’s men as hostage. Regrettably, he has underestimated Ben who hardheartedly dispatches both by putting a bullet through each.
In these establishing moments Daves sets up an unusual villain – one unafraid to brutalize his own men to achieve even more selfish objectives. Despite the obvious drawbacks, Ben’s men remain loyal and at his side. From a narrow precipice, Dan and his two sons witness the holdup. After a brief exchange about Ben having scared away his cattle, Dan returns to Alice on their farm before going into the nearby town of Bisbee. Daves moves into his second act with even more unpredictability. Ben and his men venture into Bisbee without fear, alerting the local barmaid, Emmy (Felicia Farr) to wake the Marshal (Ford Rainey) and alert him to the stage robbery. Ben’s motivation is unclear. Cheek comes immediately to mind, particularly as Ben’s right-hand man, Charlie Prince delights in baiting the local and inept law enforcement with the particulars of the holdup without giving the whole story away. Afterward, the Marshal and his deputy sheriff, town drunk, Alex Potter (Henry Jones) saddle up and depart in search of the crippled stagecoach. Although Ben instructs his men to hightail it into the nearby cliffs and wait for his signal he remains behind to take advantage of Emmy.
Their romantic exchange is rather poignantly realized; Ben recalling Emmy used to work for another saloon that favored a house of ill repute he clearly frequented with regularity. Once again, Delmar Daves shows his expertise in crafting this moment not indigenous to Elmore Leonard’s story; one so easily fraught with possibilities for narrative failure or, at the very least, implausibility. Emmy pours Ben a drink. He whets her virginal appetite for companionship with a few well-placed inferences as to the importance of a good woman in any man’s life. She willingly submits to his off-camera seduction, the pair emerging from the backroom some time later with Emmy admitting that for the first time in her young adult life, she has a moment worth remembering. Having agreed to help Butterfield and the Marshal, Dan enters the bar and engages Ben in a discussion about reimbursing him for having driven his cattle away during the holdup. Dan baits Ben just long enough to be taken by the Marshal at gunpoint.
But Dan absolutely refuses to see Ben onto Contention City, the last stop to catch the train to Yuma where Ben will be tried for the murder of Bill Moon; that is, until Butterfield offers Dan $200 as remuneration for his troubles – badly needed money to help salvage his ailing farm. It is a perilous prospect however. Charlie and the rest of the posse are still lurking about the mesas. To throw Ben’s men off their path, Butterfield convinces Dan and Alex to take Ben to Dan’s home until nightfall. During mealtime, Ben ingratiates himself to Alice. But their boys, Mathew and Mark are unimpressed by Ben’s seemingly congenial attitude; chiding him for being a coward and challenging their father to shoot him dead. Dan nervously encourages his sons to be silent while Alex keeps vigil under the cover of night.
Not long after Ben acknowledges that Dan is a very lucky man. Alice is a fine woman – the kind Ben might have wanted for himself…if only he were a fine man. Interestingly, there is little envy between Ben and Dan; rather a strange, multifarious friendship firmly established but doomed to implode once the pair has left the farm. At daybreak, the pair arrives in Contention City, Butterfield escorting Ben and Dan to the bridal suite inside the local hotel until the 3:10 train to Yuma arrives. Regrettably, Ben calmly explains that the rouse will never work, since his men have been instructed to cover all the bases. In the meantime, Ben goads Dan with an obvious reality: that even with Alex and Butterfield at his side he is woefully outnumbered and will likely die.
Butterfield hires five locals to even out the odds. But these men begin to grow weary and fearful as time passes and eventually back out of the deal. Butterfield releases Dan from his responsibility, saying he will pay Dan the promised $200 even if he decides not to go through with their arrangement. But Dan has dug in his heels. Moreover, he is committed to seeing justice prevail in spite of the odds. But guarding Ben until the train’s arrival becomes further complicated with the arrival of Bob Moon (Sheridan Comerate); Bill’s avenging brother whose attempt at retribution with a pistol is thwarted by Dan. An errant gunshot alerts Charlie to Ben’s whereabouts and he races to inform the rest of the posse who make their ride into town.
Alex is wounded in the back by one of Ben’s men, the gang taking great delight in stringing him up by a chandelier in the hotel’s foyer as an ominous precursor of things to come. In the meantime Alice arrives, making a valiant attempt to convince Dan to forget about his promise and let Ben go free to save his own life. In response, Dan explains, “The town drunk gave his life because he believed that people should be able to live in decency and peace together. You think I can do less?” Unable to dissuade her husband from a purpose she now equally believes in, Alice takes off with Butterfield in her carriage. She will wait for the 3:10 on the open plains.
Dan takes Ben at gunpoint through the narrow streets and alleys of Contention City. Ben’s men attack, but are unsuccessful, Dan using Ben as his shield to maneuver closer and closer to the depot platform. Intense clouds of steam from the advancing locomotive momentarily obliterate Ben and Dan from view; the posse advancing on them but Ben encouraging Dan to board an open box car as the train begins to pull away. Unable to comprehend what is happening, Charlie shouts for Ben to drop so that he can have a clear shot at Dan. But as the posse scurry to apprehend the pair, Dan takes dead aim, shoots and kills Charlie from his vantage inside the baggage car. The rest of the gang let the train leave without further incident. Bewildered, Dan inquires what made Ben do it and Ben explains that he felt a duty to Dan because he prevented Bob Moons from shooting him in the hotel. As the train rounds the bend rain begins to fall, reaffirming Dan’s faith in the future as Alice and Butterfield wave at the passing train en route to Yuma.
3:10 to Yuma is an improbable western; its premise of a remorseless desperado reformed by remembrances of a former love reawakened through his interactions with two good women – Emmy and finally Alice, the spouse of the man he wishes he might have been is pure hokum and/or fairy-tale. And yet, it works – magnificently, in fact. The unlikely camaraderie that evolves between Ben and Dan clicks, primarily because neither Glenn Ford nor Van Heflin succumbs to the expected clichés of their characters. The trick is, of course, partly in the performance and partly in the writing; Halsted Welles’ screenplay never relying on archetypes. In fact, 3:10 to Yuma is practically a contradiction of every western cliché we’ve come to know, love and anticipate. The diffusion of good vs. evil – and, in fact, the veritable muddling of even the gray area in between – reveals multiple layers of subtext to each character as the story evolves. Today, such richness and complications are par for the course of most visual story-telling. But in 1957 their appearance must have seemed not only unusual but, in fact, a startling departure from the status quo. In the final analysis, 3:10 to Yuma remains an intriguing psychological western melodrama – perhaps the finest example from its vintage and thoroughly compelling in unexpected ways.
Criterion’s Blu-ray is stunning. Mastered in hi-def and 4k resolution the resulting image is simply gorgeous. The B&W elements have been dramatically cleaned up from an original fine grain camera negative. We’re seeing detail herein like never before, showing off Charles Lawton Jr.’s superb cinematography at its very best. There’s really not all that much more to say, except that Sony’s commitment to pluperfect remastering under Grover Crisp has once again outdone itself. The image is clean, but refined; razor sharp and exhibiting pitch-perfect contrast levels; rich blacks and bright whites. The ‘wow’ factor is in evidence throughout this presentation – a reference quality disc by any standard. The DTS monaural audio is remarkably aggressive; crisp dialogue and exceptional clarity throughout. Sony has also given us a new DTS 5.1 track that, I must admit, is one of the finest rechanneling efforts I’ve heard yet; sounding natural and with very solid spatial separation across all channels. The one genuine regret herein is in the extras. We get brand new interview pieces with author Elmore Leonard and Glenn Ford’s son, Peter – solidly represented but all too brief, and a booklet essay written by critic Kent Jones. That’s all, folks. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)