Friday, November 16, 2012

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

USA, 92 minutes
Director: Delmer Daves
Writers: Halsted Welles, Elmore Leonard
Photography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Music: George Duning
Editor: Al Clark
Cast: Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Felicia Farr, Leora Dana, Henry Jones, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Emhardt

It's interesting to watch virtually back to back the two movie versions of the 1953 Elmore Leonard story, "Three-Ten to Yuma," made 50 years apart out of the same story—indeed, the same screenplay, as Halsted Welles (who died in 1990) gets first writing credits in both. Many of the same plot points and even scenes and lines of dialogue recur in both. Yet they are two rather different films. The 2007 remake is a remake, first, hallmark of a metastasizing trend of the 2000s (and counting), patching in state-of-the-art action stylings by expanding a good deal, and not unsuccessfully, on the story's middle section. The original eschews a lot of the fancy set pieces of the remake, no doubt in line with budget considerations, instead focusing on the story much more as suspense chamber piece with Rod Serling-level ironies of human foible.

For anyone interested in treatments of Elmore Leonard stories they are a particularly interesting pair, both coming from outside of the '80s and '90s bubble, when Leonard may have been coasting a little on the superstar status he enjoyed. (I need to see Get Shorty and Out of Sight again but I remember them now as bloated and self-satisfied and was definitely underwhelmed.) Both versions of 3:10 to Yuma, however, are worth seeing I think (and then, with me, it's on to catch up with the FX TV show Justified, which I suddenly realize I have been hearing good things about for years now). But if you only have time for one—and I know how that goes, life is short after all—then this 1957 version is your pick. The usual spoiler disclaimer verbiage goes here.

For one thing, it doesn't put on its Icarus wings and attempt to soar on grand ideas of good and evil. It's leaner, more focused, and more believable. Russell Crowe as bad man Ben Wade is probably the better actor, but the role itself, as written in the original, is more restrained—no super powers in evidence, for example—an advantage for Glenn Ford, who may be one-note but it is the right note here. Similarly, Van Heflin as Dan Evans, the impoverished rancher joining the posse because he needs the money, may not have the (still limited) chops of Christian Bale but he has a face and a manner out of the school of Robert Stack that works a good deal better for the role as it is written and shot.

Just so, by hanging back a bit more than the remake and letting Elmore Leonard's narrative take the lead, the nifty little 1957 production keeps its strongest points and details unassuming and blunt and then simply lets them keep coming: Ben Wade whistling snatches of the haunting theme at the most excruciating moments, a weirdly complex minor key melody (sung by Frankie Laine produced like Marty Robbins at start and finish) ... a nice realization of a funeral march, with a boy leading it and slowly pounding a dead-sounding drum ... fun throwaway lines as when one of the posse philosophizes, "My own grandmother fought the Indians for 60 years, then choked to death on lemon pie" ... all that sustained tension written on Heflin's face ... even the soft strumming on an acoustic guitar that accompanies much of the action, working to create a forceful lulling tension just out of reach of one's consciousness.

Director Delmer Daves was a journeyman professional who rotated between westerns, war stories, noirs, and romances, most of them low-budget. His best-known pictures now are more often those he wrote—The Petrified Forest and An Affair to Remember, say—but his directing credits are not exactly unimpressive, including this, Destination Tokyo, Dark Passage, and A Summer Place. The professionalism is hard to miss, in fact, as this deals its elements swiftly and with confidence. The last third, set almost entirely in the hotel where everyone sweats out the wait for the train, is particularly good, mostly packed with organic plot development and intriguing, often disturbing, and always effective incident.

The ending is basically the same, which leads me to believe that's how Leonard ended his original story (which I still haven't been able to put my hands on quite yet). But here there's a quite explicit incident that sets up the character motivations, plus the screenplay furthermore takes a moment to explain itself reasonably lucidly on the late developments. It may not be the best explanation in the world but it's there and it makes enough sense to get us over the finish line.

But even more than a narrative that makes sense, I appreciate a number of the incidentals here over the remake, with all its evident money. The 1957 version does the job with 30 minutes less running time. It maintains an evenhanded low-key atmosphere and never attempts to be flashy about anything, which ultimately makes the contrasts more convincing. Its low budget look and feel, which in many ways either mimics or anticipates the more general look and feel of TV Westerns, at least of the time, lulls us into a certain complacency, enabling it to make some of its strongest points way more emphatically than anything in the flash and sizzle of the remake. But hey, flash and sizzle works too, so make it a double feature, baby.

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