‘3:10 to Yuma’ or — Better Than ‘The Exorcist’?

“What the hell is this shit?!” I muttered to myself as a cornball Frankie Laine song blasted over the opening credits to ‘3:10 to Yuma’ (1957). Fortunately I knew the tale was by Elmore Leonard, who wrote the original story Budd Boetticher’s excellent ‘The Tall T’ (1957) was based on, so I was optimistic the plot wouldn’t be as corny as the title song because if it was I wasn’t sure I’d survive the experience (there’s only so much country and western music I can tolerate — i.e. none whatsoever). And I shouldn’t have worried as this is one of the finest Westerns ever made… and even the soundtrack improves!

It’s got a superficial ‘High Noon’ (1952) vibe going on to it with carefully controlled tension mounting as a ticking clock counts down to inevitable violence. Here it’s struggling Arizona rancher turned temporary deputy, Dan Evans (Van Heflin), escorting murderous outlaw, Ben Wade (Glenn Ford), to Contention City so he can put Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma where prison awaits, if Wade’s men don’t kill Dan first that is.

Dan might have Van Heflin’s reassuring, soft baritone voice but he doesn’t have Wade’s charm. Dan’s wife has noticed this and Wade has noticed she’s noticed. Neither does Dan have Wade’s ability to kill. Wade has noticed this, too. Dan might be the one holding the gun and Wade might be the one restrained on the bed but it’s Dan who’s riddled with insecurity.

As a backdrop to this human drama director Delmer Daves provides a setting filled with almost abstract spaces, dense, noir-like shadows and soaring crane shots all of which heighten the emotions and crank up the tension. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of the films Leone poured over to create his “west” as there are many touches here — ticking pocket watches, parasols against barren landscapes, a raising crane shot over a town, the camera gazing down railroad lines, the slow build-up to violence — you would later find in the Italian director’s films. Even the soundtrack (which is excellent) frequently sounds Morricone-esque such as when a soaring soprano lifts the music into the sky or when we hear the main theme being casually whistled (music is an extremely important, and active, aspect of this movie).

Yet by the time Dan and Wade reach Contention City and we settle into the meat of the plot my thoughts were less of the Western genre and more of horror as we witness a self-assured, cocky and sinister Wade goad, manipulate, tease and bribe Dan from the bed where he is restrained. It’s an expertly written, performed and directed scene of mind-games as Wade attempts to break Dan purely by his words alone, and Ford as Wade is terrifying as he lies there both powerless and all-powerful as he chisels away at Dan’s “faith”. It’s an extraordinary performance.

The ending, which I won’t spoil, is delightfully unexpected and also wonderful as its one of those endings that keeps the film moving on, playing on, in the audience’s heads after the closing credits have rolled. For me, personally, I was left sitting there playing out an entire sequel in my mind that would, essentially, be ‘Midnight Run’ (1988) as Dan tries to get Wade to Yuma by jumping onto various trains, wagons, horses, carriages and all with hilarious results and with the two of them becoming buddies along the way whilst Wade moans about wanting chorizo and eggs. I mean, that IS the spirit in which the film ends, right?

‘3:10 to Yuma’ is outstanding. It’s beautifully shot, perfectly acted and has an incredibly tight script that grips you from the start and never lets go for a second. It contains almost zero action but is thrilling as hell. Oh, and if you thought Regan MacNeil was scary in Friedkin’s film then just wait until you see Ford in this… and he didn’t even have to spin his head around or puke out a load of green vomit to do so.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.