Saturday, August 25, 2007

Squeezin' That Watch Ain't Gonna Stop Time

In anticipation of the upcoming remake starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, Encore Westerns is running the original 3:10 TO YUMA, released in black-and-white in 1957. Although the cable network isn't airing a letterboxed version, the film's emphasis on intimate performances still manages to come through nicely on the small screen. Director Delmer Daves (JUBAL) goes for suspense, rather than gun-blazing action, in this well-acted Columbia western.

Poor rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) accepts $200 for a dirty job nobody else—not even the town marshal—wants: transporting captured outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to board the 3:10 train from Contention City to Yuma, while evading Wade’s loyal gang’s attempt to sprint their boss. It's not an original plot--in fact, it sounds a lot like HIGH NOON--but it comes from an Elmore Leonard novel and is an excellent framework for the actors to hang their craft on.

While Daves does stage a few action sequences, YUMA is a character-based battle of wits between Ford’s cunning, charismatic bad guy, whose powers of seduction work on men just as well as with women, and Heflin’s honest but financially struggling family man, who takes the job to put food on the table. Both actors are marvelous, but the slight edge goes to Ford, who plays nicely against type with a tight smile, a forked tongue and a quiet steadiness that wears down the nervous Heflin more precisely than hysterics would. Wade is a killer, but he’s no psycho, which makes him more dangerous.

George Duning’s memorable score teams with Frankie Laine’s theme song and appropriately dry Arizona locations to set the stage for one of the most important westerns of the 1950s, despite its clunky climax. Also in the cast are Felicia Farr, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Emhardt, Henry Jones, Richard Devon and Ford Rainey. Despite its reputation as an excellent film, I don't think it's above remaking, particularly with Crowe and Bale in the leads (in the Ford and Heflin roles, respectively) and director James Mangold behind the camera. Mangold's second feature, 1997's COP LAND, has much in common with 3:10 TO YUMA, in particular the leading man's dedication to right versus wrong and his brave fight to stand up to corruption against incredible odds. I doubt that it's a coincidence that COP LAND's lead, played well by Sylvester Stallone and created by screenwriter Mangold, is named Fred Heflin.

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