Home Video Hovel: 3:10 to Yuma, by Scott Nye
Thanks to the one-two punch of a New York retrospective and The Criterion Collection releasing two of his Westerns on Blu-ray, Delmer Daves is getting something of a resurrection. While never reaching the productive or acclaimed heights of such contemporaries as Howard Hawks, John Ford, or Michael Curtiz, even a cursory examination of his films reveals a certain tonal urgency, a genuine feeling for how to get under an audience’s skin just so, and a deftness with genre. Arguably his most famous film, 3:10 to Yuma is a great introduction, a taught, almost noir-ish Western layered with an unwavering sense of the fragility of law, the illusion of pride, and the allure of transgression.
The plot is simple, and by now (thanks in no small part to James Mangold’s 2007 remake), quite famous – rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin), strapped for cash due to a long drought, takes a job ferrying outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) to the 3:10 train bound for Yuma, where prison awaits. Naturally, things don’t go as simply as that, what with the whole of Wade’s gang on the hunt, and increasingly few other deputies willing or able to stand by Dan’s side.
While it bears more that a slight resemblance to Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (and the publication date of the short story upon which it’s based, the year following that film’s release, does insinuate a closer connection than author Elmore Leonard admits), the differences are as telling as the similarities. Both are undoubtedly tense, ticking-clock dramas, but where Gary Cooper’s retiring sheriff is duty-bound to enact justice, Dan just needs the money. Whereas Cooper makes mention that he’d rather not do what he must, his steely resolve stands in stark contrast to Heflin’s almost reflexively expressive face, which makes very clear that he really, really doesn’t want to be there. Unlike Cooper, he could genuinely turn, and Wade’s bribes of exponentially larger sums are far from the empty gestures to which they would amount in other films.
Yet Dan takes this sense of justice upon himself, though not perhaps not purely for altruistic purposes. He nearly refuses the job at the outset, and his resolve only solidifies after his wife tells him how proud she and their two sons are of him, a normally assumed perspective that had been recently called into question. One senses that the $200 is pittance compared to the standing he will now hold in his house, though, as his older son mentions upon his departure, neither are of much use if things go south.
With Heflin providing the nervous stoicism, Ford aptly counters it with casual corruption. Ford doesn’t overplay the open invitation villain roles send out for theatricality, but presents a calm, cool magnetism that reveals his certainty that this capture is but a brief interruption to his plans for the week, if not the day. He easily charms the women who come into his path, and nearly Dan himself, though by the end, they’ve come to such an innate understanding of what little the whole deadly affair has amounted to that any camaraderie is practically assumed.
The film has been justly acclaimed for its particular visual style, which is not un-Western-like, but much more in line with the long shadows and dark corners that populate film noir. High contrast is the order of the day, and Daves and cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr. (who has his own noir creds after shooting Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai) went through no small effort to achieve that look in the Arizona desert. All that is given fine representation in Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition. The real restoration and digital transfer work was carried out by Sony, and has all the hallmarks of a studio-funded endeavor. It’s crisp, clean, consistently and appropriately grainy, “flawless” in a certain sense, but a little artificial, a little too shiny, for me, losing something of that Old West dust. This probably won’t bother most viewers, and I certainly delighted enough in watching it. It’s very good, professional, and thorough work, but it’s not exceptional.
Following suit, the disc offers only a pair of interviews (both conducted for this release), neither particularly lengthy, but each well worth your while. First, Elmore Leonard talks about writing 3:10 to Yuma in the early days of his career, crafting stories for mass consumption and slight profit. It’s an interesting look at the business of writing, as well as the feeling of being adapted (twice, in this case). Following that is a fascinating interview with Peter Ford, Glenn Ford’s son. I approach children-of-celebrity interviews with great caution, but Peter presents himself as totally distanced from the personal impact of his father’s decisions, whose infidelity is compounded with a general disinterest in parenting, going so far as to have a group of stuntmen take Peter, at age ten, to a porn theater and a prostitute, the latter of which he managed to avoid. That might be the wildest story, one which he now tells with good humor, and it’s exemplary of the perspective Peter provides, at once admiring his father’s talent while presenting a biographer’s perspective (indeed, he wrote such a book) on everything else.
Better still is an essay, included in the accompanying booklet, by Kent Jones, something of a jack-of-all-trades cinephile whose numerous professional accomplishments never overtake the passion, humility, and humanity of his writing. Here, he reflects on the film’s themes of marriage and moral ambiguity, its many aesthetic virtues, as well as its somewhat neglected status in the foundation and afterglow of the auteur theory, connecting all of these with Daves’ work on the whole, and illustrating that he is perhaps just as deserving of special recognition as any other pantheon director. If you’ve already seen the film, give it a read before your next viewing; it’s a great piece.
If Daves is one of “your guys,” 3:10 to Yuma a favorite for any reason, or dammit you just like westerns, this is a very easy release to recommend. While I take some minor issue with the transfer, on the whole it’s a very solid release, presenting the film handsomely and with a small, but no less essential, gathering of bonus features.