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Monday, 28 July 2008

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

The 3:10 to Yuma is a lonely train apparently, or so tells Frankie Laine's opening theme tune, that plays out like Tex Ritter's theme tune to High Noon, plaintive and leading. However we don't see the train for quite some time, because this isn't your standard shoot 'em up cowboy film, it's a suspense film, almost a film noir in many ways, with an initial setup and then a gradual unveiling of a number of plans with their cat and mouse twists. It's hardly surprising really, as the film is based on a story by Elmore Leonard.

Glenn Ford is the bad guy, Ben Wade by name, who heads up a band of outlaws. As the film opens, he and his band rob Mr Butterfield's stage of the gold it's carrying, and they shoot the driver dead. Van Heflin is the good guy, a cattle rancher called Dan Evans whose cows roam a little close during the holdup, so Wade scatters them and their horses too. Wade isn't stupid and soon sends the Bisbee marshal on a wild goose chase while his men get away, but dallies with a barmaid and gets himself caught.

That's the setup, but then comes the suspense. The marshal has Wade but he doesn't have his men, he's outmanned and outgunned and he wouldn't stand a chance in a fight. The solution is to get Wade out of town immediately, all the while playing on the expectations of his men as to where they'll take him. Where they take him is Contention City, to put up Wade in a room at the hotel to wait for the 3:10 to Yuma. Dan Evans takes the job of getting him there and keeping him there, because Butterfield offers $200 for the job and he needs the money desperately.

As you'd expect from the title, this is a western. Everything is shotguns and horses and stagecoaches, all set against the striking scenery of southern Arizona, as depicted beautifully by the photography of Charles Lawton Jr, who had a lot of westerns behind him already. However with almost no alterations, this could very easily become a low budget Edgar G Ulmer noir set in the sleazy Los Angeles of the fifties, or even a samurai drama or something set on a different planet. I could see it as a late Warner Brothers gangster flick with Humphrey Bogart in Ford's role and Edward G Robinson in Heflin's. It's that archetypal a story.

Delmer Daves directs with style, though he benefits massively from Lawton's cinematography. The story is impeccable and tight. However one of the chief reasons for this being elevated beyond a standard thriller is the way that the characters are written and performed. Ford definitely plays the bad guy, the leader of a vicious outlaw band, but he isn't painted all in black. He treats his lady fine and he even treats his captor with respect. Heflin definitely plays the good guy: tough but easily tempted and we often aren't sure as to which way he'll turn at any given moment. Both breathe life into their characters, never grandstanding or trying to steal the show, just quietly doing what they do, but very memorably indeed.

I haven't been to Bisbee but I've been to Yuma, to the territorial prison no less, and contrary to expectations, the trip was the one time I've ever been really cold in Arizona. Then again it was early January in the middle of the desert with a wind blowing, so the conditions definitely called for it. There wasn't any rain, such as Dan Evans is waiting for here, but it wouldn't have seemed surprising. That this film be remade for a modern audience doesn't seem surprising either and I'm now eager to see director James Mangold's version, with another couple of very powerful actors: Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

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