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1 review, 6 user ratings

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3:10 to Yuma (1957)
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by Jay Seaver

"A game of cat and mouse with the cat and the mouse in the same room."
4 stars

"3:10 to Yuma" starts out in a perfectly B-movie fashion, with a title song that promises adventure. And it is, in fact, kind of a stock western, with a reluctant hero and a murderous gang, time spent out on the open range and in wild west towns, with justice a tricky thing to acquire: There's just not enough law to go around sometimes.

As the movie opens, a rancher and his two sons are minding their herd, with father Dan Evans (Van Heflin) mindful of how much the drought is costing him. Their path intersects with a gang that has just robbed a stagecoach, losing their horses in the process. The thieves stop in the nearby town of Bisbee for a drink, strutting around like they own the place, until their leader, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), is captured. He's not terribly worried, though - a lot can happen between Bisbee and Contention (where the titular prison train will stop), and his gang is far more organized than the law in those parts. He hasn't counted on that quietly resourceful rancher, though, the one who doesn't want to get involved but can't say no when the stage line's owner (Robert Emhardt) offers enough money to keep his farm going...

There are a couple of names that might attract the notice of the casual film watcher on this one. Glenn Ford was a western and noir stalwart when this film was made, and gets top billing despite his role as the villain. Perhaps more notable to a contemporary audience is that it's based upon a story by Elmore Leonard. Almost fifty years later, Leonard is still a working writer, and still does the occasional western in between the snappy caper stories that have brought him the most fame (and lucrative movie deals). Without reading the original story, I can't guess how faithful an adaptation this film is or even how much the western stories he cranked out for pulp magazines in the 1950s resemble his later novels.

It rather feels like his work, though. Wade is an amiable villain, smarter than most crooks, not really wishing his pursuers any harm. He makes friendly conversation with Evans before trying to escape, and when it doesn't work, he almost apologizes - he has to do it, you understand, and he'll do it again, although his first choice is to talk his way out of custody. Evans, meanwhile, seems like a much more conventional character, the family man who left to his own devices would live his life out without ever encountering danger, but rises to the occasion. There are hints that he's been more in the past, though - he's the first person the sheriff asks for help when it comes time to bring Wade to Contention, and his plans are well thought-out.

The movie is well thought-out too. Screenwriter Halsted Welles delivers a screenplay that holds together, using a lot of western conventions and stock characters but also trusting that the cast can sell Leonard's characters and situations without guns blazing. There are a few head-scratchers - Wade's gang seems to converge on Contention fairly quickly; either it's a larger gang that it first appears or they're keeping in touch through unseen means; Evans' wife Alice (Leora Dana) seems to follow him to Contention for no reason beyond being put in peril. Still, the faults in the screenplay seem to be only "somewhat unlikely", as opposed to crippling.

Director Delmer Daves makes the most of his raw materials. Having gotten his start as a writer himself, he is a strong storyteller, less concerned with pretty vistas (though the film has its share) than with pushing the story and characters forward. He isn't afraid to just let Ford and Heflin talk when that's what best serves the film. He also handles the action scenes well, giving the audience a good idea of how much space there is to maneuver in a hotel room, or what kind of run it is between that hotel and the train station, and what kind of cover Evans will have to be aware of. He does a fine job of ratcheting the suspense in the final act, giving one character a nastier death than I was expecting and tilting the balance of power late in the movie in a way that doesn't seem cheap, but still puts Evans at a decided disadvantage.

Of course, a good portion of the reason that last act is so effective is that Daves has spent the entire movie building both his hero and villain up as worthy adversaries. The movie never cheap jokes at the expense of the characters. It never them get into fights just to have more fights, since whoever lost might look less competent. We wouldn't be nearly invested in - or believe - how this movie ends if it wasn't a duel of equals.

3:10 to Yuma is better than a B-movie, though it likely doesn't make the list of "essential" westerns. It was popular at the time of its release, and if it doesn't quite make the cut to be one of the films that is studied as important and masterworks, it's still a fine example of its genre.

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originally posted: 06/11/05 09:00:25
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User Comments

3/02/21 morris campbell good western 4 stars
3/20/11 Josie Cotton is a goddess An essential western 5 stars
8/06/08 Screwball An excellent Western 4 stars
9/08/07 Pokejedservo Not bad, a little uneven and it didn't really "grab" me. But overall it was a decent flick. 3 stars
7/25/07 William Goss Solid cat-and-mouse Western holds up fine. Ford seems to be having fun. 4 stars
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  DVD: 03-Jun-2003



[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Delmer Daves

Written by
  Halsted Welles

  Glenn Ford
  Van Heflin
  Felicia Farr
  Leora Dana
  Henry Jones
  Richard Jaeckel

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