Based on an Elmore Leonard short story, the 1957 Western 3:10 to Yuma largely chugs along with familiar genre efficiency, including a ticking-clock tension clearly inspired by 1952 favorite High Noon. But early in Halsted Welles' screenplay, other intentions begin to come into focus. After the picture-opening gunplay sequence--a stagecoach robbery orchestrated by legendary outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford)--rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two sons return home. Dan explains to his wife Alice (Leora Dana) the crime they've witnessed, and she replies, "It seems terrible that something bad can happen and all anybody can do is stand by and watch."
The comment is carefully indirect, but it puts a burr in Dan's saddle. "Lots of things happen where all you can do is stand by and watch," he replies. Soon we learn that Dan's feelings of impotence extend to his tenuous grip on the family homestead. Facing ruin during a drought, Dan helplessly ponders the irrigation that could reverse their fortunes. In the course of lending a hand to the lawmen and businessman charged with cleaning up Wade's mess, Dan gets a fateful opportunity: he can earn the $200 he needs by making sure Wade takes the 3:10 train to Yuma, all the way to justice at the end of the line.
San Francisco-born director Delmer Daves never became a household name, even with film buffs, despite having made a number of well-regarded genre pictures, including the classic noir Dark Passage (which he also scripted). 3:10 to Yuma puts into play both Daves' Western and noir skills. The widescreen black-and-white photography of Charles Lawton Jr. (The Lady from Shanghai) enhances the noir atmosphere when not expertly taking in the handsome landscapes of the Hollywood "oater."
3:10 to Yuma provides some notable opportunities for actors, beginning with top-billed Ford. Ford's laconic outlaw has the devil in his eye, whether he's satisfying a barmaid (Felicia Farr of Kiss Me, Stupid), hitting on Evans' wife, or ruthlessly taking out the weak link in his criminal gang. Heflin's weary determination to do right by his family (and just do right) makes a good contrast, exploited in the shadowy encounter in a hotel room as Evans and Wade await the train. Here, Wade tests Evans' moral resolve as it becomes increasingly apparent that Wade's gang of twelve will put the rancher on the losing side.
Good supporting work is turned in by Farr, Dana, Richard Jaeckel as Wade's right-hand man Prince, Robert Emhardt as stage-line owner Butterfield, and familiar face Henry Jones as the comic relief, town drunk Alex Potter (a year later, Jones would play the coroner in Vertigo). And there's the now-campy title tune by Frankie Laine ("There's a legend and there's a rumor/When you take the 3:10 to Yuma/You can see the ghosts of outlaws ridin' by..."); Laine's more familiar these days for his self-mocking title tune for Blazing Saddles.
3:10 to Yuma twists its knife of tension with an efficiency familiar to connoisseurs of the finest of '50s Westerns and TV photoplays. Likewise, the film is distinguished by its thoughtfulness regarding the nature of Western heroism, as defined not only by dead-eye gunplay, but by family, community, and moral rectitude.
Sony's 4K push benefits the Criterion Collection's special edition of 3:10 to Yuma, which features a spectacular new HD transfer deriving from 4K digital restoration. While never appearing anything less than film-like, the image leaps to life with depth and detail, well-calibrated contrast, and fine gradations between chiaroscuro poles and across the greyscale. I could detect no sign of compression artifacts: this is a tight picture with welcoming film-like character. Purists can select the LPCM 1.0 soundtrack option, while the more aurally adventurous can check out the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that's also included; both are clear and clean, with the latter inherently adding a bit more dynamism to the presentation.
In addition to another fine booklet of credits, tech specs, artwork, photography, and liner notes (here by critic Kent Jones), Criterion's special edition includes two fascinating interviews. Author "Elmore Leonard" (13:01, HD) recounts his memories of the material and specifically how the film came together, throwing in his thoughts about the recent remake.
Likewise recorded in 2013, the "Peter Ford" (15:04, HD) interview finds Glenn Ford's son—and author of the biography Glenn Ford: A Life—discussing his father in both his work and his personal life (plus, what it's like to be Glenn Ford's son).
Western fans should saddle up immediately for this terrific release, coinciding with the release of Criterion's edition of Jubal (also with Ford and also directed by Delmer Daves).
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