Criterion // 1957 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // May 20th, 2013
"Funny, some men you see every day for ten years and you never notice; some men you see once and they're with you for the rest of your life."
For modern audiences, movies in the Western genre prior to its Italian renaissance often get lumped together under the derogatory "oater" heading for being cliched and predictable. They aren't altogether wrong, as myriad examples of the straightforward black hat-white hat dichotomy will attest to, but there are too many that bear far more weight to dismiss the entire genre. Still, they've fallen far out of fashion and are brought back only in spurts, two or three at a time, every decade or so. It's too bad that they don't seem to resonate like they once did, because it means that people aren't watching movies like 3:10 to Yuma anymore and they really should. It's a fantastic psychological drama, one of the best ever in the genre, and its new restoration from the Criterion Collection shows exactly how great it is.
After the robbery of a stagecoach and the murder of its driver, the authorities round up notorious gang leader, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford, The Big Heat). When the rest of his gang sticks around, threatening the rest of the town, the marshal persuades a hapless rancher named Dan Evans (Van Heflin, Shane) to babysit him until they can secret him onto the next day's train. Over the next few hours, Evans and Wade talk and Wade tries to convince Evans to let him go, even pay him a tidy sum for the service. To Evans, though, honor is much more important than money.
Few things in film make me happier than a well-crafted western and, truly, 3:10 to Yuma ranks right up with the top films of the genre. Smart, funny, and immediately likable, it's like a best friend I forgot I had. From the first scene, a long and winding shot of a stagecoach riding through the desert, director Delmer Daves (The Red House), one of the most underappreciated directors of his time, hammers home the desolation of the west. The barren landscape underscores the harsh, unforgiving world where these people live. This is no boom town where oil and money run freely, nor is it the kind of place where a tycoon holds all the cards while exploiting the townspeople. No, this town is hell, a place where the cracked earth hasn't tasted rain in months and the only thing on the minds of the townspeople, not to mention their cattle, is survival.
Enter Ben Wade, whose easy demeanor flies in the face of this depression. He's a killer and a crook, but does it all with a smile and a tip of his hat. You might never trust him, but with his flattering come-ons and better-than-you attitude, he's a hard character to hate. He's an early version of the anti-hero we love so much today, but it was a rare thing in 1957 and a brilliant contrast with the feckless Dan Evans. Sure, he tries his hardest, but he's the humanized version of his town. Broken, emasculated, and tired, Evans volunteers to stow a known killer, somebody far more dangerous than he can handle, because this is his last shot to prove to himself and, more importantly, to his wife (Leora Dana, Amityville 3-D) that he still has value.
That makes 3:10 to Yuma a fairly sad tale, one in which the only person with a shred of confidence or happiness is the worst person in the story. Even still, it's a fun, extremely tense, and psychologically resonant western that is beautifully done across the board. The direction from Daves is stylish, but completely unassuming. He draws an incredible amount of suspense through showcasing two people in a room for nearly the entire film, and doing so with a total lack of flash is amazing. Of course, he's only part of that equation. The writing of Halsted Welles, a veteran of suspense shows from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Night Gallery, is equally strong, full of subtleties and little lines that both serve the story and make for an eminently quotable piece of entertainment.
None of it would be the same, though, without the superb performances. Glenn Ford was always known for his good guy roles, but is perfect as the smirking, charming villain. Van Heflin, certainly not the first person I'd think of for the role, is equally fantastic in his part. The general feeling of softness his presence projects doesn't necessarily transfer to a hardened rancher, but the level of vulnerability is not only rare for a male lead in this era, but the only possible thing that could work for the part. Even Felicia Farr (Kiss Me, Stupid), the lonely barmaid, is memorable with maybe twenty lines in the movie. That she is so strong for such little screen time is mostly the point; the writing is superb, the performances are exceptional, and as a whole, 3:10 to Yuma is a true classic and a brilliant film.
Criterion delivers another winner with their Blu-ray edition of 3:10 to Yuma. The 1.85:1/1080 transfer represents a brilliant restoration job, an absolutely gorgeous image that does the film all the justice it deserves. The detail is incredible, with fine lines all the way to the back of the frame and a nice, natural grain structure. Blacks, whites, and greys all look virtually perfect, with nice contrast throughout and I didn't notice an instance of damage or dirt in a single frame. It's never looked better than it does here. Sound, too, with a pair of mixes to choose from, is about as good as it gets. The original mono track serves its purpose very well, with good dynamic range for a single-channel mix. The 5.1 Master Audio track is generally a little more powerful, but there isn't much in the way of spatial effects. I can't really recommend one over the other, but both are crisp and clean.
Extra features are surprisingly light on the disc, however, with a mere two interviews supplementing the movie. The first, with Elmore Leonard, writer of the original story for 3:10 to Yuma, along with many other memorable adaptations, is a very interesting discussion of his early life as a writer, his experiences working with the filmmakers on the adaptation, and the things that were changed for the film. The second, also quite good, features Ford's son, Peter, who talks about his dad and growing up the son of a Hollywood legend. Together, the two make up about thirty minutes and I wish there was more, but the disc's technical features are so good that it's an easy recommendation.
I don't say stuff like this very often, but 3:10 to Yuma is basically a perfect film. Unpretentious, deeply psychological, and gorgeously produced, it works on every level, making it one of the very best examples in the history of the genre. Smart and powerful while remaining completely unassuming, I can't imagine how it could be any better than it is. If you've never seen it, or have only seen the modern remake, Criterion's Blu-ray reaffirms just how brilliantly it still shines after all these decades.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1957
MPAA Rating: Not Rated