3:10 to Yuma
Director: Delmer Daves / Screenplay: Halstead Welles from story by Elmore Leonard / Editing: Al Clark / DP: Charles Lawton Jr. / Score: George Duning
Cast: Glenn Ford / Van Heflin / Felicia Farr / Leora Dana / Henry Jones / Richard Jaeckel / Robert Emhardt
THIS IS THE AGE OF THE TRAIN…
Elmore Leonard, that doyen of latter-day ‘Pulp-Fiction’, had the idea first. Called by some critics, a sub-conscious response to High Noon (1952), 3:10 to Yuma has an equally simple premise. Outlined by Leonard with customary terseness, it has a cowardly farmer take responsibility for getting a gang-leader into custody. He needs the money, see, to save his drought-stricken ranch, thus hold his family together.
That’s about it, but the movie that bloomed from such a stripped-out pitch, is a wonder to behold.
Columbia Pictures enlisted screenwriter Halstead Welles to adapt, with uncredited help from the Director assigned to the project, Delmer Daves. Daves had actually begun his film career back in the ‘Thirties, as a freelance screenwriter, before making his directorial debut with a run of tub-thumping war movies. I’ve not seen any of these, but a film entitled Destination Tokyo must surely offer few surprises…
Nonetheless, Daves’ post-war career continued in the burgeoning Western genre, where he could polish lacklustre scripts and revel in epic landscapes already celebrated by such luminaries as John Ford. ‘Yuma is considered the creative high-point of his ensuing career: a synthesis of his writerly understanding of character, melded with an eye for the natural stage and all rendered here, in crisp B&W. This, at a time when Hollywood was embracing colour as a riposte to the rise of television. In ‘Yuma, the production was blessed with Charles Lawton Jr as DP; a veteran of the genre, of collaborations with Daves and, on this evidence, someone familiar with world cinema. One only has to consider the pitch-black shadows at-play, even in some exteriors, to see the influence of German Expressionism.
Prior to ‘Yuma, Daves had directed Jubal (1956) to some acclaim. Another classic Western, it starred Glenn Ford. A charismatic leading man, Ford began in theatre, back home in his native Canada, before migrating out to try his luck in Hollywood. Blessed with rugged looks and a deceptive, easy charm, he would make the transition into pictures look straightforward. After a wartime interregnum in the U.S. Marines, his career resumed with Gilda (1946), opposite Rita Hayworth. Ford chose his parts with care; each new film giving opportunities to cement a reputation as a genial, uncynical lead. Such conservatism often leads to entrenchment however and Ford knew it, which was why, when Daves offered him the role of the meek rancher in ‘Yuma, he switched tracks and went for the villain instead. As-written, the part would offer Ford something outside the norm.
In the end, it would be Van Heflin who signed-on for the part of rancher, Dan Evans. A likeable character actor, Heflin already looked like a run-down frontiersman; such homespun appeal, unlocking roles such as the farmer opposite Alan Ladd in Shane (1953). Once Ford had swapped over to the villain here, it’s easy to imagine Heflin was happy to reprise the stereotype, even if it meant he’d see his career peter-out in the Sixties, as the new crop of directors came to prominence. Ford would go the same way in the end: television, then B-movies & Z-movies until the wheel turned full-circle and he could be paraded as a trophy name in Richard Donner’s Superman (1978); Clark Kent’s father, if you’re interested.
‘Yuma begins with Ben Wade (Ford) robbing a stagecoach of the Butterfield Line, for the gold bullion concealed on its roof. We can forget the gold: it’s just a McGuffin that leads Wade to shoot both the driver and one of his own men, at a point when tensions are running high. There’s a callous momentum to Wade’s character, we now see. A degree of authority that goes unchallenged by the cowpokes surrounding him. Go further, and you see threads of a belief by author Leonard, in the fatalistic cliché of ‘live by the sword and die by the sword’.
The gang’s helped by a herd of cattle they’ve rustled, in order to surround – and stop – the coach. They’re owned by Van Heflin’s Dan Evans who, along with his two chipper sons, are out looking for them. Cresting a rise, they witness the scene. Before they can escape, their own horses are taken, to prevent them alerting the Marshal in the nearby town. So, the Evans’ boys have to round-up their herd on-foot, before anything can be done. Such impotence in the face of threat, defines Evans, for he’s already failed as a farmer and this new twist of the knife, is clearly not the first disappointment. Consider the snide comments from his wife Alice (Leora Dana) as she ponders the loss of the horses. In Evans’ defence, ‘What could I do?’ seems reasonable, but one imagines this is all just so much sandbagging when we get lines such as:
Evans: ‘Three years of drought killing my cattle. That’s terrible too, but I can’t make it rain!’
It does highlight his pressing concern, however: horses can be replaced, but what if there’s no water? So, buoyed with the notion of borrowing money to buy water from his neighbour’s spring (an act of desperation in itself), Evans sets-out on one of his spare horses, for the ‘town’ of Bisby. He and Alice dream of ‘lots of rain, green pastures and fat cattle’. It’s a naïve dream, but it’s all they’ve got left.
I love the shot when he’s riding out. Daves cranes his POV right up, to show Alice cradling her boys, as their father rides into the frame’s opposite corner, into the horizon of the unknown. We’re complicit, now. Daves lends us omniscience; lifting us above the dust to see the dreaming skies.
Wade’s gang happens to be in Bisby, too: drinking at the one and only saloon to mourn their comrade, as a makeshift posse rides out, unaware that the very men responsible for the robbery, have just told them about it… With the locals off on a wild goose chase, Wade sends his men on to the Mexican border, leaving him free to enjoy the yearning charms of the barmaid Emmy (Felicia Farr); a washed-up cabaret singer he once saw perform. There’s real pathos in their exchanges here; a sense of lassitude on Emmy’s part, that’s left her so desperate for an attentive caress, that she’ll sleep with a villain such as Wade, as a way of passing the time. What’s interesting, is that this interlude isn’t in Leonard’s original novella, but an insightful touch added by Daves himself, that further expands Wade’s character.
The posse meet Evans, along with none-other than coach-owner, Mr Butterfield himself (Robert Emhardt). A wealthy man, Butterfield offers serious coin to anyone who can go after Wade…
And there we have it: Evans’ salvation. He’s not alone either, as local drunk, Alex Potter (Henry Jones in a jocular turn) joins him in formulating a plan. Sure enough, Wade is caught – having lingered too long in Emmy’s company – and Daves uses the crane once more, to replicate the same ‘hero shot’ as before, except this time, Emmy stands alone at the bottom of frame as a coach takes her all-too-brief lover away in handcuffs. This then, is the movie’s real Frontier experience: moments of happiness snatched from a monotonous drudge-without-end.
The contrast is nicely drawn.
By this point, Wade’s gang has cottoned-on to the fact that their boss is now in-trouble, and so returns to free him. Luckily for the plot, a little obfuscation throws them off the scent, with Wade removed to Evans’ homestead. Whilst there, he gets to see at first-hand, just how upright a life his captor leads, despite the privations. It’s only as we eavesdrop at the kitchen table, that I realise we’re watching a very talky Western in ‘Yuma. The cliché that’d been established by the mid-Fifties, was to focus on worthy, reluctant heroes, sure, but to have their antagonists as two-dimensional cutouts by comparison; preferably clad in black and bereft of any heartfelt dialogue. Yet here, around the table, Wade is something new: a cultured Western villain. Erudite & polite. Respectful, even. As envisaged by Leonard, we actually have two leads that overlap in so many ways, as to make them both cautionary tales. Evans can see the life he might’ve had, were it not for Alice and their family. Wade glimpses ‘what might’ve been’, had the ‘right girl’ only said ‘Yes’. It’s a fascinating proposition, made plausible by the contrivance inherent in Leonard’s plot.
Next day, Evans, Wade & Potter make it to the euphemistically-named ‘Contention City’, from where they intend to put Wade on the ‘3:10 to Yuma’. There sits a Federal prison, with a cell awaiting one lucky felon. Not that Wade seems at all bothered by developments; he wastes few opportunities to smirk at the earnestness of his captors, in getting him aboard the train. Moreover, Wade knows it’s only the thought of money that’s driving them on. Potter? To either buy more booze or restart his life (in typical Leonard style, the detail’s unclear) and Evans, because he needs the water: remember that?
Holed-up in a hotel room until the appointed hour, Wade will now spar with Evans, both physically & mentally, in an effort at probing the rancher’s mind. This back-and-forth will form the film’s Third Act, with the urbane, composed Wade pushing the stolid rancher almost to breaking point. How? By drawing on insights gleaned from the hours spent at Evans’ home. Words, then, are Wade’s favoured weapon of choice. To watch Ford’s take on the Wade character, toy with Heflin’s un-jolly rancher, is to watch a skilled interrogator at-work. One imagines that’s how Wade has held the gang together. After all, he’s just shot one of them dead in cold blood. You don’t get to hold a gang together after something life that, by just being ‘quick on the draw’.
Not that he manages to prise-open the implacable Evans. Key to his captor’s resistance, is the spiteful killing of Potter by the gang. This becomes a catalyst for Evans to ‘see it through’, in defiance of the odds. I won’t reveal how the final reel plays-out, but there’s a metronymic, almost procedural quality to the pay-off, I found rewarding in itself and, wouldn’t you know it, it ends with thunderclaps & rain. This cues-in Daves for one last crane shot, looking down on a rain-soaked Alice as if she’s receiving a benediction. In a sense, she is.
For this final twist in the fortunes of the Evans family has come about through some mystical event. Dan Evans has overcome his own nature – his self limitations – to WILL the rain into existence. In a sense, then, the film has now become something else entirely. It has transcended its genre and embraced other.
And it’s for that reason, that it stands out.
It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. Frankie Laine’s crooning badly dates proceedings and Evans’ two boys are straight outta central casting’s WASP list. I think Emmy’s role is also under-cooked, if I’m honest. Difficult one to call, but I think with the passage of time, I think I’d want to see her written with more independence on-show; a sense of having the right to choose. But, lest we forget the film was made in a different era, so any nit-picking today is of worth only to film theorists.
That said, the two principles are fine in the picture – particularly Ford. Yes, it gets a little too wordy-at-times for a ‘classic’ Western, if what you’re looking for is dumb action without gravity. However: if you’re hankering after something a little off the beaten path, I can only recommend catching the 3:10 to Yuma and ignoring the remake from 2008, as it offers fewer sights along the way and has you questioning whether the journey was ever essential.
My own Grandmother fought the Indians for Sixty years and choked-to-death on Lemon Pie.