An atmosphere of quiet menace and tension, a nerve-racking wait for the arrival of a train and the inevitable shootout that follows, a peaceable hero who in his hour of need finds himself increasingly abandoned by every ally until at last he stands alone against impossible odds: It’s easy to see why Delmer Daves’s little-known 1957 Western classic 3:10 to Yuma regularly evokes comparisons to Fred Zinneman’s better-known High Noon.
As he did in Shane, Van Heflin plays a subtly impotent homesteader whose life is complicated by the arrival of a virile man of action, in this case a charismatic rogue rather than a soft-spoken gunslinger. Heflin is the impoverished rancher Dan Evans; Glenn Ford plays against type as the charming outlaw Ben Wade, who falls into the hands of the law and must be escorted to justice before his gang can rescue him.
From its opening scene, in which Evans is obliged to stand by and watch while Wade uses his cattle as a roadblock in a stagecoach holdup, 3:10 to Yuma subtly contrasts Evans’s uneasy sense of helplessness and passiveness with Wade’s decisive action.
At the same time, there is a shared sense of social order between the two men, a basis for reasonable negotiation even between outlaw and citizen. “Those are my cattle,” Evans protests, and Wade equably acknowledges the legitimacy of the claim: “You’ll get them back in five minutes.” A few minutes later, Wade must co‑opt Evans's and his sons' horses to prevent them from riding for the law, but not without promising to release them as soon as he’s safely away.
In contrast to the outlaw, who easily makes a bored, lonely barmaid (Felicia Farr) in a hole-in-the-wall town an offer she’s grateful not to refuse, Evans is vaguely uneasy speaking even to his own wife Alice (Leora Dana), ashamed as he is of his inability to provide through the drought that is killing their ranch. The two storylines converge when Wade’s dalliance leads to Evans assisting in his capture — and Evans’ financial straits move him to accept a $200 reward offer in exchange for escorting the captive Evans to Contention City to make the 3:10 train to Yuma and justice.
What follows is a battle less of wits than of character, as Wade seeks to goad Evans into giving up, making a mistake, even taking a bribe to let him go. Though somewhat overshadowed by the smooth-talking bandit, Evans acquits himself well enough to reclaim his self-respect, and — in a brief but crucial sequence — the respect of the outlaw too.
Although not as nerve-racking as High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma is even more claustrophobic — the heart of the film is the verbal sparring between Evans and Wade in a second-story hotel room — and the two-character drama is more intriguing than High Noon’s protagonist standing alone. The somewhat ambiguous climax is both reassuring and unsettling, at once upholding the hero’s honor and way of life, yet also to a degree saluting the outlaw as the better man.
There’s no spiritual duel, no earned respect and debt of honor. There is just a broken man and a capricious one: one harboring hopeless dreams of being a man again in the eyes of his wife and son but no hope of achieving it; the other larger than life, an implacable force of nature able to kill men and seduce women essentially at will, and who never has any reason to honor or respect the other man, but could conceivably take pity on him and go along with him, if it strikes his fancy.
A mounting sense of dread and inevitability hangs over Fred Zinnemann’s grim, downbeat Western classic High Noon, a black-and-white anti-spectacle about an aging lawman who receives a series of nasty shocks on the day he tries to hang up his gunbelt and begin a new life.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.