"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Friday, March 1, 2013

3:10 to Yuma (Columbia, 1957)

The best Glenn Ford Western ever?


Glenn Ford’s thirteenth Western, and Delmer Daves's sixth, was the very fine 3:10 to Yuma. It is possibly the greatest Western achievement of both.


Of Daves's Westerns, only Broken Arrow with James Stewart and The Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper come close. And 3:10 has more to it even than these fine pictures. Part of that comes from the Elmore Leonard story, of course, but only part because the story is very much adapted and enlarged (by Halsted Welles). What Daves achieved above all was tension, inexorably building and building for 93 minutes, as well as a beautifully composed and photographed picture which is visually superb.

As for Glenn Ford, he was first class in some really excellent pictures (including Daves's own Jubal and Cowboy) but he was never better than as the smiling and seductive villain Ben Wade in 3:10. I don’t think anyone has ever played a sympathetic Western badman better.

The original story by Elmore Leonard appeared in Dime Western Magazine in 1953. It's only 15 pages and is, in that typically Leonard way, spare, stripped down and gritty. There is no farmer: a Bisbee deputy, Paul Scallen, brings the outlaw into Contention, to the Republic Hotel, and awaits the 3:10 train to Yuma. The outlaw is not Ben Wade but one Jim Kidd. Mr. Leonard got his revenge for the movie's name-change in 1972 when he wrote the John Sturges-directed picture Joe Kidd. Charlie Prince is the only significant other character mentioned. So even the 1957 film used the short story only as the bare bones for a far more complex plot. The 2007 50th anniversary remake, an exciting 'straight' contemporary Western, inflates it even further. But that's OK.

I have been critical in the past of Van Heflin, here a poor farmer, reprising his part in Shane four years before. But I have revised my opinion in the light of this performance and as the sergeant in They Came to Cordura. And indeed in Shane itself. Heflin was very good - solid, gutsy, down-to-earth. Certainly he was just right for this part. There are Shane-like undertones in 3:10, for example when the charming gunman comes to the ranch, flirts with farmer Van Heflin's wife and impresses his sons.

Many reviewers have also drawn comparisons with High Noon five years earlier but they bear repeating: the hero is left alone by the town to accomplish the dangerous task and the clock is ticking away till the deadline. They both have key times in their titles. They are not dissimilar visually either, with the brightly sunlit town and long shadows, all shot in strongly contrasting black and white. The scenery and photography of this picture are beautiful. There are Arizona exteriors, shot by Charles Lawton Jr., who must have studied Floyd Crosby’s work in High Noon, but here even the interiors are naturally lit as sunlight floods in to the dark saloon from outside.

The support acting is top notch. I love Robert Emhart as fat Mr. Butterfield and Henry Jones as the brave town drunk Alex Potter is also excellent. Dependable badman Richard Jaeckel is henchman Charlie Prince. Leora Dana is the austere farmer’s wife of Van Heflin, a woman with real guts, and lovely Felicia Farr (another Columbia contract player, in her third Western for Daves in two years) is sadly smiling as the consumptive saloon girl that Wade knew in Dodge. It’s a short part but she is very moving. Daves was very good indeed at the subtly erotic.

There is once again the slight hint at subversion or radicalism. It's only the barest suggestion this time, when the murdered stagecoach driver's family bury him without bothering about a preacher. Daves's West was secular and almost anti-clerical, just as it was anti-lawman. There is no good lawman in evidence at all in this picture, nor indeed in any of Daves's Westerns. When they appear at all they are brutal or crooks.

There is interesting and intelligent picture composition, some of whch you only notice after a third or fourth viewing. For example, the symmetrical beginning and ending: at the start we see a stagecoach, dust and drought-cracked land, while the final scenes are of a train, steam and a rainstorm.

Sadly, some versions were censored and the scenes of Potter's hanging body were cut. This was a pity because these scenes underline the sacrifice of the town drunk, the only citizen to stand up to the bad men, and they enhance the farmer's courage. The shadow on the staircase wall of the hanging corpse is also visually very striking.

As in The Last Wagon, Daves's Western of the previous year, there is the notion of a journey, the Anthony Mann-like idea of characters changing and developing as they move physically through time and space.

This is not an action Western (Daves was never interested in the fastest-gun-in-the-West type of film) but rather an insightful personal drama in which each of the principals, curiously, envies the other’s lot and Wade and Evans gradually come to respect each other. It's balanced, well-wrought, an ensemble piece. It could have been a play.

It’s a fine film.


  1. Jeff, each time I am watching it, I am discovering it. "Fine" is an understatement...! The scenario and plot, the photo, the blacks and whites, light and shadows, the actors - Van Heflin, Farr and Ford as the villain - it was a real trouvaille!-, the dialogue, the scenery - Sedona region and Old Tucson... Daves is surely among the top directors of the genre. He knew how to bring other influences - from the noir side for instance - like Mann. I am wonderif they knew each other. A masterpiece in itself beyond its genre.JM

    1. Yes, I entirely agree. It is one of the very best Westerns.

  2. One of the best westerns I've seen. I appreciate it more each time I see it. The remake can't stand against this classic. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin are superb.