Monday, August 24, 2009

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

This was one of many darker-toned westerns that came out after the success of High Noon. On the surface it's entirely derivative of that masterpiece down to the conceit of a clock-dependent conflict looming on the horizon, town-folk who'd rather save their own hides than render justice and a seemingly unstoppable gang of ruthless criminals. There is even a pervasive and maddeningly catchy theme song, similar to Tex Ritter's "Ballad of High Noon." Despite the similarities this picture has an original feel to it and is worth watching for one performance in particular--Glen Ford as the villain Ben Wade. He is completely evil, either killing or having his gang kill on his behalf in a ruthless, thoughtless way, but he also has a wide streak of nobility that makes his character almost likeable.

The film begins as Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his sons witness a brutal stage coach robbery in which Wade and his gang gun down a driver. Evans is outnumbered and must watch helplessly and allow Wade to set his horses free in the desert. He goes home and finds his wife (Leora Dana) largely unsympathetic to the reasoning that he was completely outgunned in the situation. She convinces him to go to town to borrow money for their ranch which is in desperate need of irrigation.

While in town, Evans assists the local sheriff in arresting Wade (though his gang get away). Wade has stayed behind in order to seduce the local barmaid (Felicia Farr) who is so thoroughly bored by her life and so instantly in thrall to Wade that a bad choice in men, is just one more mistake in a string of calamities that brought her this far. There is also a hint in the script that she might be consumptive so there is certain grim determination to get some small pleasure out of her joyless existence. All this comes through in a few very brief scenes and here Ford and Farr are both excellent. It is the first hint that this killer, who was so menacing and seemingly without conscience, is not without a soul.

In order to get the needed money for his ranch, Evans agrees to be deputized and deliver Wade to the station in Contention to take the 3:10 to Yuma. In doing so, he must allow Wade to spend part of the evening with his family and there is a creepy scene in which Wade starts to work his charm on Mrs. Evans who seems like she's been romantically neglected. Wade uses the cracks in the Evans marriage as well as the family's money trouble to spend the next 40 minutes of the film trying to tempt Evans into accepting a bribe and let him free. This mostly takes place in the sun-drenched bridal suite of the Hotel Contention. If that's not symbolic enough for you, then I don't now what is, because in a strange way these two are locked into the forced intimacy of a bad marriage and watching every tense moment of this squirming tete a tete is as unnerving as it is absorbing.

The tension remains high as the audience waits for the inevitable showdown. At the last minute all the deputies pull out of the deal and Evans is left to face down the gang alone. The finale isn't quite as taught or perfect as the ending of High Noon, but the conclusion of the film is far more satisfying. Wade allows himself to be captured. Though he admits its not such a sacrifice--he's broken out of Yuma prison before-- he does it for no other reason than it seems the right thing to do as he feels he owes his life to Evans. As the train passes Mrs. Evans on the road and the sky opens up in a miraculous rain storm.

The story goes that Glen Ford was offered the part of the hero in the movie, but decided instead to play the villain. It's no wonder he did. It's a far more interesting role and Ford was definitely up to the challenge of creating this layered character who ultimately redeems himself. The rest of the cast is strong as well, especially Van Heflin and Leora Dana who manage to convey the necessary anxious tone without becoming shrill or tiresome.