3:10 to Yuma

3:10 to Yuma ★★★★½

"At about five minutes to three, Dan, we're gonna be a lot closer than you think."

March to the West -- film #29 of 31

Whoa. Why did that opening credits sequence and titular song hit me like that? Damn, that's one of the best ever.

I really enjoyed Delmer Daves' revisionist Western Broken Arrow, and with how much I loved this one from seven years later, I ought to find more from this director soon.

Notably remade into a successful and well-received version in 2007, 3:10 to Yuma is the taut and fantastic psychologically engaging drama, that is the kind of its genre that easily can bring skeptical fans over to the dusty side of the street where I and all my best friends live. Shades of the suspense found in the all-timer High Noon pace this smart and thrilling little picture, with perpetual good guy Glenn Ford starring in an against-type role.

In 1880s Arizona Territory, a rancher named Dan Evans (Van Heflin) is struggling to get by with his sons' help, plagued by drought and misfortune. So, he'll do anything to support his boys and wife Alice (Leora Dana), and it comes in a job he's asked to do: escort notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Ford) to a train. He was just caught after a stagecoach robbery of Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt) and a double murder, captured in a saloon in Bisbee -- not before spending some intimate time with barkeep Emmy (Felicia Farr) -- as the rancher and his sons tipped off the authorities. Now, Evans is offered $200 to get Wade to Contention City, to catch the 3:10 to Yuma where he will stand trial. With a decoy set up to prevent his men from rescuing him, Wade still thinks he can outsmart the rancher in his duties as they have to wait for this train, knowing his posse will do their damnedest to find him.

ĹQuick aside: this is like the fifth Western I've watched this month that has some version of a "the doctor told me to breathe the dry air of the West" kind of line. Like, is that a real thing? I say that as the son of a physician, who I've never heard say that. Fascinating how doctors would recommend that for patients to help clean their lungs back then, as they all smoke two packs a day. Idiots.)

Also, how interesting to see this film take place around Bisbee, after seeing Robert Greene's documentary Bisbee '17, about a totally different story.

Halsted Welles writes a tight screenplay based on the short story of the same name by Elmore Leonard, as 3:10 to Yuma actually has a bit of a complicated plot for audiences to absorb. We have a terrifyingly cool outlaw, his loyal men, a bumbling drunk volunteer, a marshall a step behind, a horny barkeep, two precocious kids, a headstrong wife… and a husband, father, and struggling rancher desperate to help his family and prove his manhood. While this isn't necessarily some morally ambiguous tale with shifting allegiances, it is one with characters of differing priorities.

And hot damn is it tense, and I think that emotion stays so high because of how Van Heflin's character Dan is written: this is no John Wayne hero, blind to danger or focused on the unwavering mission. He's just an Everyman, shaky at times and confident at others, nervous with a loud bang but immediately ready to throw down when he has to. And on the other side is the supremely cool bad hombre, one of the only times he'd played on in his career, Glenn Ford as Wade just loving every minute to take viewers for a spin. New York Film Festival director Kent Jones says more about the casting:

Daves originally offered the role of Evans to Glenn Ford, who chose instead to play Wade, supposedly because he had been advised as a young man by John Barrymore to never turn down the part of the villain. Daves responded with the equally unorthodox casting of Van Heflin as Evans. Heflin was an interesting actor, a soft and often genuinely unappealing presence who specialized in characters either gnawed by doubt and guilt or haunted by the specter of humiliation. Ford, on the other hand, radiates ease, confidence, and charisma as Wade. Not only does the casting up the ante of the cat-and-mouse, war-of-nerves exchanges between Wade and Evans but it also immediately points the film in a more surprising direction.

This restored cut now widely available makes the black-and-white cinematography of Charles Lawton Jr. so crisp and simply stunning, full of boom shots and wide angles which only bring unease instead of vision. Add that to the slight score of George Duning used sparingly but perfectly -- and that amazing intro song -- and 3:10 to Yuma is absolutely one of the decade's best Westerns. Just awesome.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: Omega.

Added to My Subjective List of the Best Narrative Films.
Added to Delmer Daves ranked.
Removed from What's on My DVR?

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