Alex Fuller’s review published on Letterboxd:
A electrifying Western, every cinematic element burning off the screen in more or less perfect harmony. It has a truly excellent, deceptively simply and multi-faceted setup and ensuing narrative. I can see why someone was tempted into re-making it, it has such a good basic plot structure. We are treated to a deep roster of faultless performances, and the film is executed by Delmer Daves (what a name) in exemplary fashion - we experience an entirely believable and very tense scenario filled with vivid characters faced with decisions to make that raise elementally enthralling questions concerning the value of doing the right thing, and just what it is that somebody has to do in their life to feel that they have done their duty.
The whole cast, entirely made up of actors I'm not terribly familiar with, is superb. Glenn Ford brings a delicious blend of smooth charm and underlying menace to the role of outlaw-in-chief, Ben Wade. He is never once annoyingly smarmy, which could certainly have been a pitfall for him given the eclectic combination of personality traits required by the part, and in particular given the taunting/playing off of the good man, Dan Evans, he has to do in the drawn out second half of the film. Wade is clearly 'bad', so to speak, but is nevertheless a genuinely attractive character in many ways, which helps sell us certain other characters' reactions to him thereby bolstering the believability of the story, and we enjoy his company too which is never a bad thing.
Van Heflin as Evans is ideally plain and decent, and increasingly stressed, the lines on his face and distress readable in his eyes seeming to rise by the minute as the film near's its conclusion. Henry Jones deserves a special mention for slowly turning a slightly caricatured town drunk into a character whose fate becomes quite saddening. The scene in which he is discovered is a proper brutal shock, and so well filmed in silhouette that tells us all we need to know. And then there is Felicia Farr, who shows up tending bar and threatens briefly to steal the movie.
The chemistry, the pin-drop tension that crackles between Wade and Farr's sweet-natured Emmy is a sight to behold. Daves plays the scene out slowly, and in near-quiet, allowing the two actors to gradually seduce each other with little more than subtly shifting glances and the odd well placed phrase. It's a delightfully sexy scene, and shows what you can do without really showing much of anything at all. It's a shame we couldn't return to Farr later on, but given the way the story had to play out, fair enough. But in just this one scene she contributes immensely to the film's allure, acting intelligently with coy composure and carefully expressive use of her eyes to convey her shifting feelings, and she makes her mark in style.
George Duning's excellent score features a gorgeous recurring motif that plays throughout film, and it is not only beautiful but versatile too, equally well used in full swelling force to raise emotional highs, and slowed down and gently picked out in the same progression to underscore scenes of slowly boiling tension. At other times, gently plucked strings are well considered in heightening the atmosphere in quieter moments.
The script is terrific too, containing some really good lines of dialogue:
-"Alex, can you let me finish before agreeing with me?"
-"who knows what's safe? I knew a man dropped dead from looking at his wife. My own Grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years, then choked to death on lemon pie".
-"that's alright. they don't have to be blue". (...heart-stopping)
And numerous others. It's not a film of excessively flashy dialogue, but it is perceptive in places, taut when it needs to be to maintain suspense, and never drops a clanger once.
The film ends on a one-two punch of a superbly judged surprise, followed by a sweetly unexpected grace note. The former works, and I did not see it coming. It's a gratifyingly humanistic way to have chosen to conclude a narrative that I'd always kind of figured I knew where it was heading - but I was wrong, and happy to be so. It is maybe a tad far-fetched on reflection to buy Wade making this decision based on the respect and feeling he had gained for the Evanses, with whom he had been through so much - and this was surely his motivation, his 'I don't like owing anyone any favours' being nothing but a macho cover - but it works in the moment, and I loved it. And the latter nudges the film towards transcendence.
Things are marred ever so slightly by one or two plot contrivances late on, notably one involving the brother of the tragically slain stagecoach driver (who 'just found out' about Wade's location - but how?!). And I'm also not sure I completely buy Evans's wife running off after him to Contention, although I was sure glad to have her there by the end, so I can let it go.
Otherwise, damn near flawless.