Now the remake just looks stupid.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the 2007 version with Russell Crowe and Batman, but at the time I hadn’t seen the 1957 original in almost twenty years and didn’t revisit it until now. And, man, if anybody told you the remake was superior, you need to ignore them from here on out. Unless I said that, in which case I was just kidding.
You know you’re in for a good time from the very beginning as the title song by Frankie Lane blares over the opening credits and the long, slow shot of a soon-to-be-robbed stagecoach plowing across a bone-dry plain. Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) leads the gang of outlaws and even though he’s Glenn Ford, he doesn’t wait long to prove that he’s a bad, bad man. When the stagecoach driver uses one of the gunmen as a shielf, Wade responds by first shooting his own man and then plugging the driver right through the forehead. Despite being a mass murderer, Ben Wade prefers to conduct his affairs like a gentleman and he makes no threats to the other witnesses, which include hard-working but down-on-his-luck farmer Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two precocious boys.
The robbery takes place in the part of Arizona where all the towns have classic Western names. The action takes us first to Bisbee and later to Contention; nobody even mentions that Tombstone is a stone’s throw north. Director Delmer Daves takes full advantage of his dust-choked southwest locations without an ounce of authenticity lost in whatever scenes were shot on Columbia’s back lot. Perhaps one of the secrets to the film’s enduring appeal is that nothing about it looks like a studio picture. You won’t mistake it for a documentary, but its verisimilitude is a defining feature.
The ticking clock helps convey a sense of immediacy. You probably know the story, adapted from a short work by Elmore Leonard (who must now be 163 years old). Ben Wade is captured by the small-town constabulary who realize they have to hustle him out of town as quickly as possible and try to get him on the 3:10 train to Yuma before his ruthless gang returns and shoots Wade a path to freedom. Good old Dan Evans takes on the job of shepherding Wade to the station, and a good chunk of the film consists of a sweaty morning and part of an afternoon spent in a hotel room, waiting for a pocket watch’s hands to get past three o’clock. It sure takes its time.
Ford allegedly jumped at the chance to play Ben Wade because John Barrymore had once told him never to pass up the chance to be a villain. Ford was one of the biggest box office draws in the country by the late ’50s and there’s no evidence that he was the least bit concerned about tarnishing his reputation by portraying a stone killer. Of course, he imbues Wade with the considerable charisma that he brought to every role; it takes the outlaw all of fifteen minutes to charm the pants right off of bartender Emmy (Felicia Farr) and he darn near turns Dan’s wife Alice (Leora Dana, who, at the advanced age of 34, was consigned to the role of “older woman”) into putty with just a few strategically delivered lines.
Van Heflin’s role is every bit as pivotal. Heflin was a familiar face (and what a face, eroded from a granite edifice) but never had the star power of Ford. He has no trouble sharing the screen with the marquee hunk, however, conveying a genuine sense of doubt as he barely resists Wade’s various appeals. Dan Evans is a salt-of-the-Earther whose resolve is buttressed by his own sense of guilt; the more he dares even to think about letting Wade go (for money, out of fear) the more he determines not to, like he’s tearing down and building up his good-guy muscles in a compressed workout cycle.
Daves and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. make masterful use of the boom shot in “Yuma,” with dazzling aerial views showing Wade’s gang fanning out like little diorama characters as they encircle the hotel. The viewer gets to survey the final stage as the slowly unfolding climax plays out with a sense of depth far more dynamic and exciting than anything shot with ersatz 3-D technology. When gunmen snipe from the rooftops or dart out from street-level cover, the camera provides a sense of immersion, but never spatial confusion. History Channel producers only wish they could produce battlefield recreations this convincing.
If you don’t know the ending, lucky you, because it’s a small miracle in its own right, the kind that might make cynical viewers roll their eyes, but Daves isn’t interested in cynicism. Redemption is probably too big a stretch as well, but there’s plenty of room in-between.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The high-def transfer is almost immaculate, showing off the inky shadows and the sharp contrast of the black-and-white photography. The ridges in Heflin’s middle-aged face read like a relief map. Just beautiful.
The Blu-ray offers both Mono and 5.1 Stereo (DTS-HD Master Audio) options. The Criterion booklet indicates that the Monaural track has been restored, but says nothing about the Stereo track. The Mono is crisp and distortion free and I didn’t hear a major difference in the Stereo. The Monaural is the default option, so I assume that’s the original. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion hasn’t included much. However, the 2013 interview with writer Elmore Leonard (who is apparently 87, not 163) is packed with plenty of gems even at a slim 13 minute running time. Leonard’s terse prose has been popular film fodder for a long time, but he talks about how moviemakers always feel the need to flesh it out for the screenplay. He does not approve: “All explaining in movies can be thrown out.” He also talks about how puzzled he was by the changes made to the ending of the 2007 version. And by puzzled, I mean greatly disappointed.
The only other extra is a 2013 interview with Peter Ford (15 min.), son of Glenn Ford and author of “Glenn Ford: A Life.” Peter speaks candidly about his father who was not exactly a faithful husband or an attentive parent. And we get a great anecdote about how Orson Welles reacted when he found out that Glenn Ford was shtupping Rita Hayworth.
The 16-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Kent Jones. Jones also wrote the essay for Criterion’s release of “Jubal.” The purpose of both essays is to argue for Delmer Daves’s status as an auteur worthy of respect and study, and Jones states the case quite convincingly.
Criterion has released both “Jubal” (1956) and “3:10 To Yuma” this week. In concert with two appreciative essays by Kent Jones, the purpose of this dual release is to boost Delmer Daves’s auteur cred. Mission accomplished. “3:10 To Yuma” balances tense, deftly staged action with powerful psychological exploration that never feel overdetermined or unearned. Van Heflin holds his own against Glenn Ford too.