Sunday 5 January 2014

Movie Review: 3:10 To Yuma (1957)

A taut psychological western, 3:10 To Yuma thrives on an asymmetrical battle of wills between two men.

The notorious Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) leads his gang in a violent stagecoach hold-up witnessed by rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin). Ben and his wife Alice (Leora Dana) are struggling financially due to a severe drought. At the small town of Bisbee, Ben seeks the comfort of barmaid Emmy (Felicia Farr), but a ragtag posse financed by stagecoach owner Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt) catches up with him, and Ben is arrested. For extra money, Dan and the town drunk Alex (Henry Jones) volunteer to escort the captive Ben to Contention City, where the outlaw will be placed on the 3:10 train to Yuma to face justice.

Dan, Alex and the handcuffed Ben stop over at Dan's ranch in a ruse to throw Ben's gang off their trail. Ben meets Alice and Dan's two boys, who are proud of their Dad for helping to capture the fugitive. Dan and Alex then escort Ben to Contention City, where they take refuge in a hotel room waiting for the train departure time. As Ben's men close in to try and rescue their leader, Butterfield desperately tries to recruit additional man power, and Ben gets to work on Dan, probing for a way to convince the rancher to set him free as the clock ticks towards 3:10.

In the tradition of High Noon (1952), 3:10 to Yuma establishes a tense countdown to a violent confrontation, and a lone hero who has to do the right thing in the face of everyone else's fear. 3:10 To Yuma adds a delicate psychological struggle between a confident gang leader and a vulnerable rancher. In a compact 92 minutes, with not a scene or word wasted, director Delmer Daves pushes well past the confines of the genre to explore the limits of honour in the face of danger and temptation.

The Halsted Welles screenplay, based on a story by Elmore Leonard, establishes Ben and Dan as two men who crave what the other has. Ben has money, the adventurous life, and the respect of his men. Dan is penniless, scraping a living by chasing after cattle, and has to withstand the quizzical stares of his kids and wife when he does not intervene to try and stop the stagecoach robbery. But Dan does have stability and the love of his family, while Ben is reduced to life on the run and liaisons with anonymous barmaids.

When the balance of power tilts towards Dan, wielding a shotgun and escorting Ben to Contention City, Ben resorts to a relentless series of low-key mind games, threats and enticements to try and get the upper hand. He finally exploits Dan's financial misery, and makes an offer that Dan will find difficult to refuse. As the clock creeps towards 3:10 and a death-inviting walk from the hotel to the station beckons, even Mr. Butterfield urges Dan to walk away from the mission, and the journey to justice hangs in the balance.

In a fine performances, Glenn Ford humanizes the outlaw Ben Wade without betraying his criminal essence. Ford ensures that Ben always remains a cold-hearted gangster willing to kill as needed, but he also makes him a person, ready to communicate, negotiate and capable of appreciating his own emotions. Van Heflin provides an excellent counterpoint as Dan Evans, carrying in his expression the pain of a rancher unexpectedly swept up by the challenging confluence of financial need and the call for justice. The melancholy title song by Frankie Lane adds a layer of sad fatalism to the unfolding drama.

3:10 To Yuma is the hour of truth, two men who want nothing to do with each other unexpectedly forced to share a common destiny.

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