Friday, August 21, 2009

Reeling Backward: "3:10 to Yuma"

It is a strange thing to experience a movie remake before the original film. That's how it went for me with "3:10 to Yuma," which was remade in 2007 starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe. The 1957 original with Glenn Ford and Van Heflin was a respected Western, but isn't considered one of the giants of the genre. Certainly, its reputation does not come close to matching that other 1950s Westerns like "Shane," which starred Heflin in a similar role, or "High Noon," to which thematically and structurally "Yuma" owes a great debt.

After having finally seen it, I'd say that not only is the original superior to the remake, but "3:10 to Yuma" deserves a slot right up there with the best Westerns of its era.

In many ways, "Yuma" is more of a psychological thriller than a pure Western. Oh, there's plenty of gunplay and horse riding and all that. But the heart of the movie is a long sequence -- 45 minutes at least -- that takes place in a hotel bridal suite, where regular joe Dan Evans (Heflin) is standing guard over notorious outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) while waiting for the train that gives the film its title.

Wade's gang has been alerted to his presence, and gathers outside to spring their boss. Meanwhile, the hired guns bought by moneyman Butterfield decide they've had enough, and desert them, leaving only Dan, the fat Butterfield, and the town drunk Alex Potter (Harry Jones) to stand against Wade's men.

Dan is no lawman -- just a down-and-out rancher who needs the $200 bounty Butterfield has offered to any man who will bring Wade to justice, and put him on the train to the prison in Yuma. Much like his character in "Shane," Heflin plays a regular guy who feels compelled to stand up not just for justice, but to prove to his wife and two sons that he has what it takes.

In that hotel room, Wade needles and threatens Dan, offering him bribes that increase in size as the train's arrival time draws near. And Dan is clearly tempted -- at one point asking, "Are you sure nobody'll ever know?" It's only after Wade's men shoot the town drunk that his mind is made up.

That shooting scene is quite astonishing for its depiction. First, it showed the shooter and the victim in the same frame -- something you didn't see in Westerns prior to that time. Not only that, but Potter is shot in the back by one of Wade's men. And when he falls over, you can clearly see a smoking hole in the middle of his back. For 1957, this is pretty brutal stuff.

Glenn Ford gives one of his best performances as Ben Wade. There's a sly intelligence and sinister charm about him. After knocking off Butterfield's coach, he and his gang ride into the next town and inform the marshal about the robbery. After the posse takes off, Wade casually remains behind to woo the barmaid, played by Felicia Farr (who was Jack Lemmon's wife in real life).

In another bursting of the old Hollywood code, it's clearly implied that Wade and the barmaid have sex. He is shown coming in from the back of the bar, arranging his clothes, and she emerges a few seconds later. Again, one has to think of this in the context of cinematic portrayals of the time -- even dissolving on a couple kissing and then fading in with them anywhere near a bed was considered scandalous.

One of the things I did really like in the remake was the performance of Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Wade's sadistic lieutenant. In the original, Prince was played by Richard Jaeckel, who had a long career playing a tough guy on film and television. In both cases, there's a devotion to Wade that borders on the homoerotic -- though obviously less overtly in the 1957 version.

"3:10 to Yuma" was directed by Delmer Daves, based on a story by Elmore Leonard, and the excellent cinematography was by Charles Lawton Jr.

3.5 stars

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