Thursday, October 2, 2008

FILM REVIEW OF "3:10 TO YUMA" (1957)

"Destination Tokyo" director Delmar Daves' "3:10 to Yuma" (1957) qualifies as one of the classic suspense westerns of the 1950s. Furthermore, in the larger context of westerns, this frontier drama follows in the boot falls of "High Noon" since it concerns a showdown between hero and villain based on a time deadline. Everything about this oater is solid and realistic with strong acting by a competent cast. Composer George Duning's haunting score heightens the tension in scenarist Halsted Welles' spartan screenplay. Welles' also penned another big western "The Hanging Tree" (1959) with Gary Cooper. Welles does an exceptional job of capturing the ironic essence of Leonard's short story, the first of the bestselling author's work to reach the big-screen.

"3:10 to Yuma" opens with a close-up of parched earth somewhere in the Arizona territory. The camera tilts up to show a stagecoach crossing the landscape in long shot and then the stage swings around toward the camera and its galloping six-horse team hauls the vehicle past the camera trailing a plume of dust. Daves concisely establishes in this one take the inhospitable nature of the surroundings. One of the themes is then man versus nature. Later, we learn that a drought has devastated the area. Seasoned lyricist Ned Washington's words--as sung by vocalist Frankie Lane at his most doleful--enhances this western. An entire sub-genre of sagebrushers emerged in the 1950s that opened with images of horsemen riding through the opening credits with singers such as Frankie Lane or Tex Ritter warbling an atmospheric theme song.

Glenn Ford makes a memorable entrance as ruthless but sardonic outlaw Ben Wade. The notorious Wade gang hold up a stagecoach. During the robbery, the stage driver gets the drop on the Wade gang member atop the coach and shoves a gun into his back. The brave driver threatens to kill the Wade gang member if the outlaws don't cease and desist. No sooner has he delivered his ultimatum than Wade himself rides up and guns down his own man and the stage driver.

The hero of "3:10 to Yuma" is a small potatoes rancher, Dan Evans (Van Heflin of "Shane") who is waging a losing battle against nature for lack of rain. Dan's cattle are dying, and all our hero requires is $200 dollars so he can obtain six months water rights from a nearby rancher. Unfortunately, Dan is dirt poor. Furthermore, he is stubborn and self-reliant and balks at the idea of seeking a loan from the bank. There is nothing flashy about Heflin's performance or wardrobe. Truly, he is a hero behind the 8-ball.

After the Wade gang rob the Butterfield Stage Company of a gold shipment, they gallop brazenly into Bisbee, Arizona Territory, to alert the local constabulary about the hold-up. In the saloon, where they are drinking, they explain that they couldn't thwart the thieves. The marshal (Ford Rainy of "Flaming Star") gathers a posse, but one of them, the town drunk Alex Potter (Henry Jones of "Vertigo"), is late and rides out after the posse has left. Meanwhile, Wade disperses his gang across the border and tells them to rendezvous with him in Nogales. Wade hangs around the saloon to sweet talk young beautiful Emmy (Felicia Farr of "Charlie Varrick") and they get romantic. During this interval, the posse run into Dan and the Butterfield Stage owner. They describe the gang and the marshal realizes then that the cattle drovers back at the saloon were the Wade gang. Alex rides up and tells them that the drovers left town but one of them stayed. The posse heads back to town. Dan distracts Wade in the saloon while the marshal sneaks up behind him and arrests him. The Butterfield Stage owner (Robert Emhardt of "The Stone Killer") offers $200 to anybody that will help escort Wade to the train station for the titular three-ten to Yuma. Initially, Dan refuses but decides that the $200 dollars is worth the risk. Nobody else wants to get in on the money except Henry Potter. For the remainder of the movie, Dan and Wade share the upstairs bridal suite in the hotel while they await the train. Wade's second-in-command Charlie Prince (Richard Jaeckel of "The Dirty Dozen") rides off to prepare a reception for our hero and Wade. Eventually, the gang capture Henry Potter and string him up in the hotel. During the suspenseful wait in the hotel, Ben Wade begins to have a grudging admiration for Dan Evans. When they make dash for the train, Ben actually helps Dan out and they get aboard the train unscathed. Although this ending has been called implausible, I don't think it is anything of the sort. Ben Wade is a dangerous, egotistical killer who has the attitude of a cat playing with a mouse. He is so confident of himself that he plays along with Dan, helps him against his own gang, but ultimately you know that Ben Wade is never going to serve a day in jail. He proved at the beginning that he was willing to kill one of his own men.

"3:10 to Yuma" isn't the first time that Glenn Ford played a villainous killer. He portrayed a corrupt, maniacal judge in "The Man from Colorado," and before that he specialized in bad guys that turned good in westerns, like "Texas" and "The Desperados." Charles Lawton's stark black and white photography combined with striking camera angles that thrust us into the vortex of the action go a long way toward making the action palatable. Eventually, this drama boils down to two men shut up in an upstairs hotel room as they wait for the arrival of the "3:10 to Yuma" train. Daves and Lawton generate a lot of suspense throughout this western but none more tangible than at the end when our hero and villain approach the puffing train and are obscured by clouds of the steam while the outlaw gang stalk them

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