3:10 TO YUMA steamed onto the drive-in trail as one of sixteen westerns released in 1957. Two—Old Yeller and Gunfight At The O.K. Corral—-were huge hits, while this meditative, non-flashy, pocket-sized entry settled into the herd at spot #43, with a gross of $5,300,000. Respectable reviews have over time changed to glowing, often adulatory. I wouldn’t go quite that far—the wrapup scenes stretch credulity and let air out of the buildup —but for the most part it’s a darn good little tale.
After his feared gang robs a stage and kills the driver, calm outlaw ‘Ben Wade’ (Glenn Ford) lets his audacity trip him up when he lingers in the nearby town to seduce a lonely barmaid (Felicia Farr). Captured by the locals, he’s guarded by a honest, hard-luck rancher (Van Heflin) and a few nervous volunteers, while waiting on a train that will take him to prison. His gang figures on springing him; meanwhile he works a battle of wits on the nerves and needs of the decent but desperate sodbuster.
Deliberately paced in direction by western ace Delmer Daves, its 92 minutes of mood and interplay are beautifully framed by the clean black & white cinematography from Charles Lawton,Jr., wringing tension from both the exterior shots of the parched Arizona desert’s baked rocks and tantalizing but distant clouds, and the close-quarter dramatics in the sparsely furnished interiors. Felicia Farr’s skin is so tempting in close-up you want to kiss the screen. Her scenes with Ford are little gems of isolated desire.
Ford’s excellent, on top of his game at 41; his complex bad guy, likable and lethal, crafty and fair, is, if not the best of his two dozen western roles, for sure is saddled at the top of the crop with Cowboy, also directed by Daves.
Heflin’s solid as the beleaguered ‘Dan Evans’, caught between the morality of civic duty, a deeper calling of familial obligation (look honorable to his young sons or take Wade’s money and possibly save his strained marriage) and the common sense of basic survival (he’s out-gunned).
“Safe! Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from lookin’ at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years… then choked to death on lemon pie. Do I have two volunteers?”
The dialogue flows naturally without stumbling into theatrics: Halstead Welles wrote the lean and smart screenplay from a story by Elmore Leonard. Leora Dana cuts a believable portrait as Heflin’s careworn wife, and the always dependable Richard Jaeckel is deft as one of Ford’s cocky gunmen. Others delivering to effect include Robert Emhardt, Henry Jones, Ford Rainey and Richard Devon.
Topping it off is a plaintive main theme from composer George Duning, first heard in the evocative title tune easily crooned by Frankie Laine and given refrain throughout: it makes for a catchy hum.
Remade, not terribly for a change, in 2007. The modern age, frenzied as it is, does have that one larded with (way) too much shooting, and also flags badly at the finale.