In the tradition of many American westerns, 3:10 to Yuma is a study in masculinity that dramatizes a man’s struggle to balance the needs of his community—or, in this case, his family—with his personal needs as an individual, though the film is distinctive from a conventional oater in a number of ways, particularly for its spare, naked immediacy. The action in Delmer Daves’s film isn’t rousing, and we’re seldom invited to enjoy the camaraderie that many westerns celebrate as a given of frontier life. Life in this film’s west is lonely and isolating, and work is seen as plain and taxing, informed by a fear of financial collapse that, in turn, leads to feelings of inferiority and emasculation.
Cattle rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) is explicitly recognizable as an early prototype of the contemporary proletariat: a man of at least moderate capabilities whose livelihood is threatened by forces outside of his control, which is, in this case, a long drought. Dan is frustrated, twitchy, and strung-out, and his problems feeding and herding the cattle are unsurprisingly taking a toll on his relationship with his wife, Alice (Leora Dana), and their children. Dan suspects, not entirely incorrectly, that his family is losing respect for him, and his inadequacies are emphasized by the way he contrasts with the charismatic outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford).
In more conventional westerns, Ben would be the hero, as he embodies our fantasies of the west as being inhabited by glorious human tumbleweeds who cross vast expanses of land in adventures rich in private interludes with lonely barmaids and hair-trigger gunfights. And though he’s the villain, Ben is still more likable than Dan because he’s the unknown; we’re not permitted the glimpses into the tedium and disappointments of his chosen life, while Dan’s existence appears to be vividly comprised of one disappointment after another. Pooled together, Dan and Ben’s lives are a portrait of a conventional working-class man’s dreams and realities, and this is what critics probably mean when they call 3:10 to Yuma “psychological.”
The second half of the film, the portion that directly follows Elmore Leonard’s tense, compact short story, finds Dan and Ben holed up in a hotel room waiting for the titular train that will take the latter to prison. In order to ensure that Ben gets on the train, Dan will have to shoot his way through a number of henchman, alone, because the low odds of survival have scared everyone else off. Ben, who’s only partially faking his kinship with Dan, continually attempts to bribe the hastily recruited deputy with amounts of money that would instantly rehabilitate Dan’s ranch.
Ben’s the little devil sitting on Dan’s shoulder, a perversely extreme embodiment of Alice’s earlier request that Dan go to town to borrow money to keep their ranch afloat. If Dan lets Ben go he’s essentially accepting charity, but if he does this job he has the satisfaction of actively earning a lesser sum of money that will (barely) keep his enterprise alive. Ben and Dan’s prolonged conversation in the hotel room stands in for every interior dialogue a struggling man or woman has indulged about the road not taken.
3:10 to Yuma is a remarkably tense and concentrated film: Daves never dilutes the desperate tension of the central dilemma with extraneous set pieces. It’s also one of the most beautiful and human of all American westerns. The haunting low-key performances (Ford, especially, was never better than he is here), the rich, deep shadows, and the ghostly use of the locomotive’s steam quietly undermine the macho posturing of many genre films. Remarkably contemporary in sensibility, 3:10 to Yuma is overdue for discovery among younger cinephiles.
Created in 4K resolution from a 35mm fine-grain master taken from the restored 33mm camera negative, this transfer of 3:10 to Yuma is gorgeous. The whites are so crisp as to be almost luminescent, and the blacks contrast beautifully with a deep richness. Image detail is outstanding in both close-ups and master shots, which calls refreshing attention to director Delmer Daves’s often-unheralded artistry, particularly in regard to his sharp, strikingly angular compositions. There are, unusually for Criterion presentations of monaural films, two audio tracks: the original 1.0 as well as a new alternate 5.1 surround track. There isn’t much difference, but both are clean and well detailed.
The supplements are slight by Criterion standards, but the interviews with author Elmore Leonard and Glenn Ford’s son and biographer Peter Ford are succinct and informative. Leonard discusses his evolving thoughts on the film as well as his initial career as a writer of westerns, and Ford, somewhat inexplicably, focuses primarily on his father’s womanizing hijinks, most notably an episode where Orson Welles drunkenly challenges the elder Ford to a gunfight over Rita Hayworth. There’s also an excellent essay by critic Kent Jones that convincingly pleads the film’s case as an overlooked classic. Still, one wishes that there was something more explicitly focused on the undersung Daves.
This gorgeous Criterion transfer makes a convincing case for the underrated 3:10 to Yuma, which is really a character study masquerading as a genre film.