Cine-East Film Club Presents #20: 1957, 3.10 To Yuma (Delmar Daves)

by George_East on August 26, 2013

I’m so reasonable, I’m gonna let you walk right out of here.  Only thing is it’ll be just before 3.10 and I’ll be right behind you with a shotgun’  (Dan Evans)

Last week saw the death of the great American pulp thriller writer, Elmore Leonard.  He was a writer famed for his focus on low life (and usually pretty inept) criminals, and for his dialogue.  Leonard’s characters did not indulge in the lazy expositionary conversations of so many bad thrillers, but would rather chew the fat about their lives or what was going on around them, while the action moved the plot forward.    Unsurprisingly therefore Leonard is a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, who has a similar approach to the dialogue in his screenplays – even if the latter are way more flabby.

Leonard’s writing is very cinematic. Tarantino’s most mature film, Jackie Brown (1997), was, based on Leonard’s Rum Punch.   A year later Steven Soderberg would make the very watchable George Clooney vehicle, Out of Sight, adapted from Leonard’s novel of the same title.    But before Leonard turned his attention to the criminal underground, he cut his teeth on writing dime westerns (a bit like Holly Martins in The Third Man).

The most famous western to be based on a Leonard story is probably The Tall T (1957) – one of the series of taut westerns starring Randolph Scott made in the 1950s by Budd Boetticher.   In the same year an Elmore Leonard story formed the basis for Delmar Daves wonderful psychological western, 3.10 To Yuma .   This was, of course, re-made in 2007 with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.  The re-make is (unusually) undoubtedly a good film and well worth seeing if you haven’t.  It is not though, a patch on the original, which is this Week’s Cine-East Film Club Presentation, dedicated to Elmore Leonard.  It is the Club’s long overdue second western (after Clint Eastwood’s magisterial The Outlaw Josey Wales).

3.10 To Yuma  is somewhat reminiscent of High Noon (1952) in telling the story of a man who will ultimately have to face a ruthless killer and his gang, on his own  – with little more than a love of a good woman to help him.   It shares with Fred Zinneman’s classic a focus on time ticking down –  both films have titles representing the key moment to which the film is building.  Indeed like High Noon, 3.10 To Yuma can be seen as a metaphor for McCarthyism and Hollywood’s reaction to the House Committee on UnAmerican Affairs – with cowards walking away, leaving a lone principled man exposed to the bullies.  It is a call to get involved and stick to your principles.

However, the parallels can only be taken so far.  3.10 To Yuma is, at its core, a story of a battle of wills between two men and the battle of one man with himself.

Its hero, Dan Evans (Van Heflin)is an anxious farmer, not a stoical professional law man (like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane in High Noon).  He is very much not a brave man.  The first time we see him, when in the process of driving his cattle, he and his two young sons, run into the Butterfield Stage Coach being held up by notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and his gang, he is very keen not to get involved: ‘Aren’t you going to do something?’ implores one of his sons.  ‘What? And get myself shot’ is the reply.

Throughout Dan Evans, often shot in close up, is shown with beads of sweat running down his face.  He is twitchy and nervous.   His opponent, Ben Wade, on the other hand is ice cool.   After the hold up, in which the stage coach driver is shot and killed, Wade stays hanging around the local town Bisbee, after the rest of his gang have fled, in order to flirt with the bar maid, Emmy (Felicia Farr).  Even after his capture, Wade never displays any sign of doubt that he will be rescued.

Wade’s ice cold cool versus Evans’ doubt and anxiety, is at the heart of the film.

The title of the film refers to a train that Wade is to be put on to send him to justice, which is to depart at the appointed time from the wonderfully named, Contention (apparently the name of a real silver mining town in Arizona in the 1880s).   Along with the local town drunk, Alex Potter (played by the fantastic character actor, Henry Jones – who the very next year would, in his most famous role, play the cuttingly sarcastic coroner in Hitchcock’s extraordinary Vertigo), Evans is employed to escort Wade to Contention and then to hold him there in a hotel room until the train arrives.   The fee for this is the very $200 Evans needs to purchase water rights for his drought-parched farm. Even then he only takes the job after being turned down for a loan – the drought has meant that there is no cash available to borrow in Bisbee, as farms have gone to the wall with bad debts.

For the entire middle section of the film, Evans and Wade are holed up in the hotel room in Contention.  Wade will first try to overpower Evans, and then when this doesn’t work he will try to psychologically wear him down.  Wade, who flirted with Dan’s wife, Alice (Leora Dana), when he was a captive at Evans’ farm before they set off for Contention, needles Evans with references to how nice it must be to have a wife like Alice to ‘get real close to’ every night, and how Wade would treat her much better if she was his wife.  Wade offers Evans money – initially double the amount he is being paid as escort and then a huge investment ($7,000, increasing to $10,000) as a sleeping partner in the farm – he can buy all the water he needs then, as well as treating Alice, to the pretty things she deserves, if he takes it

Evans is tempted by this.  Sorely tempted – at one point asking ‘how do I know I’ll get the money’.   Van Heflin’s big craggy face is wrought with fear and confusion. He looks every part the farmer out of his depth.    He genuinely does not see himself as the hero type – he wants the money in order to keep the farm.  That’s the reason he took the job, why does it matter if he gets more money by helping Wade.

However, as the minutes tick by and he is deserted, first by the locals hired to help, then by the stage coach company owner who hired him, Mr Butterfield (Robert Emhardt), his resolve grows stronger.  It becomes to be about something other than money (indeed Butterfield tells him that he is released from his contract and he’ll pay him anyway, as the odds are so stacked against them) – instead it is about personal redemption, about getting to the place where he can look himself in the mirror and his sons and wife in the eye.  Where he can live without fear, because he knows he has done the right thing.  The shooting (and then hanging) of Alex Potter is the final straw – if the town drunk can show bravery of this sort and do the right thing, then surely Evans can.

By the time we get to the final 10 minutes of the film and the walk through Contention to the train, Evans has become a different man. Given that this is the crescendo the film has been building to for most of its length, it is shot in a  de-dramatised way by Daves.     No longer is Evans’ face dripping with sweat.  No longer is his brow furrowed with uncertainty.   He either makes it or can die at peace with himself.

Redemption even brings, at the very end of the film, the thing that he most hoped for: rain (oddly the third film presented by the Cine-East Film Club which ends in rain).   If you pursue what is right, the film suggests, you will obtain a life without fear and you will gain the respect of even those who oppose you.  If the visual metaphor here sounds quasi-religious and heavy handed, it is  handled with such a light touch by Daves that what could otherwise feel like a corny ending, raises only a smile in the viewer, as for the first time Evans has rain water rather than sweat running down his face.

The film is blessed with gorgeous black and white cinematography – the psychological drama played out on close ups of faces, just as the physical drama is played out with mobile overhead crane shots in the wonderfully realised frontier towns of Bisbee and Contention.

Some of the set pieces are truly brilliant.   The bar in Bisbee – a very long piece of wood propped over beer barrels is a particular favourite – as Emmy walks backwards and forwards in a continuous motion along it pouring shots for Wade and his gang.   Similarly the funeral cortege of the stage coach driver in Contention, shown twice without dialogue, once going to the graveyard and once coming back – the difference on the way out, the family dog stands on the coffin, on the way back in the empty cart.

As ever with films from this period, the character actors in the minor parts are a delight – Henry Jones in particular, lights up the screen as the drunk, Potter.  The two stars are both very good, not least because Van Heflin looks so unstarry – there is no Hollywood gloss on him.

There is also a great George Duning original score and an absolutely cracking theme song in classic 1950s western style, sung by Frankie Laine over the opening credits (the clip uses the song over a montage of scenes from the film) and then, later in the film, in the background, while the train to Yuma is awaited, there is a gorgeous version by Norma Zimmer.  The principal melody from the song will be used throughout the film on the soundtrack giving the whole film a unified mournful quality.   Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny would record a cover of it in the 1970s.

It is half an hour shorter than the remake and at least twice as good.  At 88 minutes long, there is not a second of flab.  It is a truly superb Western.  And it all started out as a short story called Three Ten To Yuma by Elmore Leonard.  RIP.

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