Year Released: 1957
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 92 minutes
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In an aptly-named empty town in the Arizona West called Contention City, in a bridal suite at the Hotel Contention, rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) waits until it’s time to get outlaw and murderer Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to the train called the 3:10 to Yuma, the last transport to the gallows for criminals. Ben asks Dan why he volunteered to keep watch on him, even though his men will come rescue him. Dan says it’s for $200, paid for by Mr. Butterfield (Robert Emhardt), owner of a coach line, and early on, we learn that Dan’s ranch is sagging under a long drought. His cattle have no water and despite a nearby rancher having a creek available for six months at a price, he didn’t want to ask anyone else for the money because he considers it begging, which he’s not likely to do.
But the $200 offered by Mr. Butterfield, who owned one of the coaches robbed by Ben (who killed the driver), is enough for those six months at the creek. Ben offers Dan $7,000. He tells Dan that he can do anything he’s ever wanted in his life with $7,000, if he lets him go. Dan orders Ben to stop talking to him for a while. This loaded conversation has them physically together in this hotel room, talking to one another, but they’re each completely alone. Dan has his morals, far different than Ben’s. If he took the $7,000 and let Ben go, he’d have money, but how would he be looked upon by people like Mr. Butterfield and the son of the driver, Bill Moons? Would his own sons look upon him in the same way they did when they were proud of him for being the one to have Ben Wade in his grasp?
Elmore Leonard made a fine story out of this, in considering the motivations of men in a West that feels barren, where not even the laws are certainties. Screenwriter Halsted Welles and especially director Delmer Daves does the story a few times better. Welles keeps the characters simple in their occupations and their observations. Daves isn’t concerned with widescreen shots of mountain ranges. The only appropriate times for a high-angle shot is to point out how isolated these men are. Each man. Not just Dan and Ben.
Daves also sees this West as one without John Wayne. People really live in the West. They contend with the West. They make for themselves what they can with the West. And they’re lonely here, especially when Ben quickly courts Emmy (Felicia Farr), a barmaid in Bisbee and she allows herself to be swept up by him, because as she says, the same men can be seen for 10 years and not noticed, but one like him, she’d remember forever. Times are hard and the drought makes it so. There is more of a reality to this West and it’s also reflected in the face of Van Heflin who, in various performances, has always managed to present himself deftly in a streamlined and effective mix of worry and toughness. Dan is fully aware of the problems in his life, knows that his wife, Alice (Leora Dana), is worried too, but he cannot be overcome by those worries. There’s only so much worrying that can be done, and then you have to do something about them. He will not be paralyzed by those thoughts.
Glenn Ford is also notable in how ruthless Ben is by killing the driver and then simply being polite at Dan’s dinner table when he’s transferred from a coach, temporarily to Dan’s residence. He even wonders why grace isn’t said at the table, even though one of Dan’s sons point out that they do it every night. Then in that hotel room, he tests Dan by diving for his gun, and when Dan responds as he’d expect, Ben is impressed and respects Dan even more.
The scenes toward the climax and the climax itself seals the greatness of “3:10 to Yuma.” Because of how Daves keeps this generally lawless West firmly on the ground, we get nervous as many of the men get nervous. Other men in Contention City are rounded up to help fight Wade’s gang, but they worry about what might happen. They don’t want to die. They have families. Dan has a family too and even his wife finds him and tells him to just give it up. She doesn’t want anything to happen to him.
The minutes tick toward 3:10, and all we can do is watch and hope that it all turns out ok. That’s the best kind of Western, one that allows feelings like that to emerge while watching. Director James Mangold always had in mind a remake of this, and watching Glenn Ford and Van Heflin and the supporting cast, and feeling this West just like the population of characters in this film feel it, he’s picked a good one. And I’d hope that even though his version looks more brutal than this original and therefore more of an immediate attraction, moviegoers will seek out this version too. For the performances and the atmosphere, it’s worth it.
Posted on September 7, 2007 in Reviews by Rory L. Aronsky
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