Dour and internalized rather than boisterous and sweeping, the so-called “adult westerns” of the 1950s were self-conscious attempts at bringing respectability to a genre that, in the eyes of many reviewers at the time, had not matured much since the heyday of Tom Mix. Though scarcely as gaseous as Shane or as sepulchral as The Gunfighter, 3:10 to Yuma was reportedly one of the films (High Noon was the other one) which prompted Howard Hawks to present Rio Bravo as a rebuttal to their condescension. Like High Noon, Delmer Daves’s movie offers a deglamorized prairie, protagonists stewing in their juices, and a compact structure pivoting on the arrival of a train.
Unlike Fred Zinnemann’s puffed up Oscar winner, however, characters here are kept gracefully human-sized, and the only allegory looming over the narrative is the genre’s classic tug between settlers and wanderers. The opposite forces meet at the outset, when honest rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) witnesses the holdup of a stagecoach by a gang led by charismatic outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford); emasculated before his wife and sons, Dan gets a chance to do more than “stand by and watch” (as well as enough money to save his draught-ravaged farm) when he’s handed a shotgun to watch over the captive Wade until the train to the prison in Yuma pulls into town. For all the shootouts, the film’s main duel is a psychological one between the mulishly decent hero and the rascally villain, who, stranded in a hotel room, trade threats, taunts, bribes, and, eventually, a tacit admiration for each other’s lifestyles.
This kind of ambiguity can easily become precious, but the offhand wryness of Elmore Leonard’s original story is nicely captured in Halsted Welles’s adaptation, which also showcases the author’s relaxed humor (“Who knows what’s safe? My own grandmother fought the Indians for 60 years, then choked to death on lemon pie!”) and feeling for sharp characterizations (Felicia Farr’s forlorn barmaid and Henry Jones’s town drunk are standouts). A sturdy genre piece, 3:10 to Yuma is not Daves’s best western—it lacks the bizarre melodrama of Jubal or the spiritual urges of The Hanging Tree—but remains a solid ride up to its climax, which would have been ludicrous if it weren’t for Dave’s lyrical crane shot, breaking with realism to bring rain and a tentative reconciliation of the film’s contrasting drives.