I have so much to say about this movie that I am splitting it into two posts. In this post, I'll remain as spoiler-free as possible. Spoiler free about the ending, anyway -- I'm going to get detailed about the first half, I admit. In my next post, I'll dig into themes and characterization and cinematography, and that post will involve substantial spoilers. I won't get that posted until probably tomorrow, though.
In a nutshell, 3:10 to Yuma follows a reluctantly deputized rancher who does his best to ensure that a smooth-talking outlaw gets put on the train to prison, during which they develop a grudging respect for each other.
This is a simmering, smoldering movie, more akin to film noir than a typical western. It starts quietly, slowly building to a rolling boil by the end. The opening is deceptively simple, with a stagecoach driving in the distance while Frankie Laine croons about taking the train to Yuma, where there was a famous prison.
"There is a lonely train
Called the 3:10 to Yuma.
The pounding of the wheels
Is more like a mournful sigh.
There's a legend, and there's a rumor:
When you ride the 3:10 to Yuma,
You can see the ghosts of outlaws riding by
In the sky."
It's a mournful song, a slow song, not your usual pounding, bouncy cowboy song, and it sets the mood for the movie so well.
The stagecoach comes closer, and we get treated to some really gorgeous scenery -- most of the exteriors were shot in Arizona (list here), and they are filled with desolate beauty. Next we see some cattle moving in, patient and plodding. They cross the road, the stage pulls into focus and has to stop for the cattle, and it's then that we see the outlaws.
Lots of outlaws. Not very cheerful, friendly ones, either. Their leader directs them quietly, efficiently, as they rob the stage. He designates one (Richard Jaeckel) to holler to some inquisitive bystanders to keep their distance. Once they've finished their robbery, he rides back over to the bystanders and personally relieves them of their horses, very businesslike and calm, and promises to turn the horses loose after a bit -- he just doesn't want them riding to fetch any law men; he means them no harm. He's quiet, almost gentle except for one swift burst of gunplay.
His name is Ben Wade, he's played by Glenn Ford, and he's my favorite part of this film.
Those bystanders are Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two young sons. Prosaic, staid Dan doesn't protest when they take his horses. He doesn't try to stop the robbery. He's got his two boys there to protect, and he's not going to risk himself or them over some gold. Sensible man, Dan Evans. One of his sons says, "Aren't ya gonna do something?" and he responds, "What, and get myself shot too?"
It was Dan Evans' cattle that the outlaws used to stop the stage, so he and his boys have to round them up on foot and get them back on their own land. Then they trudge home to get horses to take back to the stage, because the outlaws turned those horses loose too. They have a sizeable, sturdy home -- no raw cabin here, but a snug home with glass windows and a broad porch. From the smokestacks, we can tell they have not just one central fireplace, but some little stoves for heating other rooms too. Dan Evans clearly used to be a prosperous man, but a long drought is killing his cattle, and he's fallen on some hard times.
There at home, we meet Alice Evans (Leora Dana), Dan's equally sensible wife.
Alice is shocked to hear that the stage was robbed, and a man killed. She asks Dan, "What'd you do?" He's clearly getting annoyed by people wanting him to do something about the hold-up, because he growls back, "There was twelve of 'em. What could I do?"
I must admit that in this early stage of the movie, I'm not fond of Alice. She's a little too demanding, as if she really expects her husband to have stopped a notorious outlaw and his whole gang, and with their sons there too. I agree with Dan, who says, "You just seem to expect something of me that I'm not." She realizes then that she's being unreasonable, and insists, "No, I don't. Not really." Then she urges Dan to see if he can borrow $200 from the bank to buy "water rights" to keep their cattle alive by watering them on a neighbor's land, and he decides to try. He mounts up and rides away to take water and horses to the stranded people on the stage.
Meanwhile, Ben Wade and his gang have ridden into the tiny town of Bisbee, where they find the town's only saloon and treat themselves to a celebratory drink.
They are well-behaved and orderly, because Ben Wade is clearly not an outlaw boss who tolerates misbehavior. In fact, they might be a little too well-behaved for a bunch of trail hands fresh off a long cattle drive, like they're pretending to be.
The bar is tended by a lone girl, Emmy (Felicia Farr), who efficiently fills every man's glass, ending with Ben Wade's. He tells her not to let his men talk too much, but says they've been on a long cattle drive and are all just happy to be somewhere where they can have a drink and talk to a nice girl like her.
He's charming and chatty, clearly taken with her. She doesn't flirt back, and speaks as little to any of them as she can at first.
Wade keeps pouring on the charm, though, being all leany and talkative, and basically doing everything but hold up a giant sign that says, "I LIKE YOU!" in bright red letters.
They continue to trade ever-increasingly interested looks, until Ben Wade tells her that they saw the stage get robbed, and someone killed. Emmy then wakes the marshal from his nap, and he gathers a posse to ride off after the robbers. He's a little leery of this bunch of "cowhands," though, and hangs around with his posse until they have dispersed, instructed by Wade to meet up south of the border that evening.
In fact, he talks more about that other girl than anything, which seems like an odd seduction technique, but he ends by saying, "What's a woman for, if you don't treat her right." And we all know he's not thinking about that other girl anymore.
But of course, that posse's not gonna stay away forever, and Ben Wade knows he needs to be on his way. He acts like he's going to leave, even going so far as to mount his horse. I think for a minute, he really believes he is leaving.
They share a lingering look. They both know what could happen here, and the older audience members do too, but I must admit that the first time I saw this, when I was probably 15 or so, the sexual attraction between these two went right over my head. I was just like, "Oh, he likes her and wants to stay and talk." Heh. (I also thought this movie was boring, which shows how remarkably brainless I could be when I was a teen.)
Emmy turns and walks away, going back inside the saloon with a single glance back at him. Ben's back off that horse in a blink. But before he can follow her inside, the town drunk, Alex Potter (Henry Jones), comes stumbling outside, determined to join the posse if he can only get on his horse. Ben Wade watches him trying to climb on that horse, quietly amused by this earnest bumbler, giving him some joking misdirection about who the outlaws are.
At last, Alex Potter rides away, and Ben Wade returns to the saloon. He pauses to look inside, and I feel like he's making sure she really wants him to come to her.
And yes, I am spending a lot of time and pictures on this one little scene because it is amazing -- the things they do and don't say, the way they can scorch the celluloid with a simple exchange of glances. Glenn Ford has never looked or acted more attractive than in this scene, and that is no mean feat.
We all know what's likely to happen next, including them, and he gradually draws near to her, talking all the while in that same soothing, gentle voice you could imagine him using on a spooked or injured animal.
She turns a shoulder to him, still not sure she's going to take him up on his unstated offer. He keeps on talking, and that's what makes this scene so important to the overall plot, because we get a taste of just how confident Ben Wade is, how well he knows how to be convincing, to get what he wants just with words, not with threats or a show of violence, not even by asking a direct question.
You can see why his men follow him, why they obey his every word. It's not because he will unhesitatingly shoot one of them if they make the mistake of getting taken hostage. It's because of how he can talk.
By the time he gets this close, he's looking and sounding about as irresistible as possible. Naturally, inevitably, kissing occurs.
And that's it, we fade over to the posse. No need to show what happens next, no need to even talk about it, we just fade off politely.
I love old movies.
So remember that Alex Potter left late to join the posse? Well, join them he does, bearing the news that one of the men they now know to the the robbers... is still in town, at the saloon. Well done, Alex Potter! Everyone clatters on back to town.
Meanwhile, back in town, Emmy and Wade are just re-entering the saloon from the back hallway, both looking a little damp and sheepish and shy. An adjusted collar button here, a hesitant touch to the hair there, and that's all we need to know about their afternoon delight. They linger by the bar, talking and, well, kind of cuddling and being as cute as possible.
Yeah, that can't last, though. Cuz here comes Van Heflin, all by himself, no posse in sight. He stalls Ben Wade, asking to be paid for the time it took to drive his cattle back to his own land after the outlaws "borrowed" them. He never specifically accuses Wade of being the one who held up the stage, but Emmy clearly knows for sure now that's who he is, though I feel sure she suspected before.
Ben winds up in handcuffs. And that's when the real fun starts. And don't worry, I'm not going to be this detailed about the rest of the movie -- the first thirty minutes are a slow, singeing burn, but things heat up faster now, and I'm going to skim more because I don't want to spoil things too much. Already, I've told you how things turn out with Ben and Emmy (who I don't think ever gets called by her name in the movie, but that's how she's credited), and that's enough major spoilage.
Ben's a little rueful that he let Dan Evans con him into standing around long enough to get captured, and he kind of respects Dan a little for having the nerve to do that. I think of Ben Wade as a con man of sorts, and getting conned a little himself kind of amuses him. For about three seconds. He gets mad too, but hides it patiently, other than threatening Dan with getting killed if he keeps doing these sorts of foolish things.
I love how they cram these shots full of people! More on that in my next post, though. Okay, so then Ben Wade sits down at a table in the corner and proceeds to mostly just watch as they figure out what to do with him. He also chimes in with "helpful" suggestions, testing, gauging, observing, learning about his adversaries.
Dan Evans doesn't want to participate anymore, he was just helping the posse to be nice, he says. But then the stage coach line's owner offers $200 to anyone who will help take Ben Wade to the oh-so-aptly named Contention City and put him on the train to Yuma at 3:10 the next day. (You knew that title would make sense eventually, right?) Suddenly, Dan is interested because that's precisely how much he was going to borrow from the bank. He and Alex Potter, the town drunk, are the only two who volunteer.
Emmy says a farewell of sorts to Wade, telling him with her eyes that she regrets nothing. Neither does he.
And then they leave, with her standing in the middle of the street in a shot that clearly echoes the one of Alice Evans and her sons watching Dan leave.
For reasons I'm not going into here because already this review is massive, they stop off at Dan Evans' ranch on the way to Contention. Just in time for supper, too, so Dan gets treated to the very uncomfortable situation of having this infamous outlaw share food with Dan's family.
And when Dan leaves the room, why, Ben Wade can't help but be his oh-so-charming self, complimenting Alice Evans. He can't resist delighting the womenfolk, it seems to me.
Dan is not pleased, and hustles Wade out of there as fast as he can. As he departs, Wade turns to Alice and says very sincerely, "I hope I can send him back to you all right." He's not flirting now, he's not being sly -- for just a moment, he is earnest.
Then off they ride, and at pretty much the exact midpoint of the film, they enter a hotel in Contention City, and Dan Evans takes Ben Wade to a room that overlooks the street, there to guard him until the train is due. Ben sits on the bed, makes a few remarks about it being the bridal suite, jokes around a little.
Dan takes a chair, businesslike gun always in his hands. And the games begin.
Ben Wade talks. And talks. Talks about danger, talks about opportunities, talks about what will happen when his men arrive, talks about anything and everything. Throughout, Wade remains unruffled, calm, the picture of patience.
He offers Dan money to let him go. He warns him what will happen if Dan tries to put him on that train. He promises not to tell anyone if Dan "accidentally" lets Ben get that gun away from him. For the next thirty minutes, the tension in that room mounts until I'm so keyed up watching it, I can't sit still.
Here is just a tiny taste of it, as all the people who promised to help leave one by one, High Noon-like, when Ben Wade's gang arrives, and Wade keeps relentlessly talking to Dan.
This post, of course, is my third bit of participation in Legends of Western Cinema Week, hosted by A Lantern in Her Hand and Meanwhile, In Rivendell. Visit both those blogs for more western goodness! And please stop by tomorrow if you want to read the post where I delve much more deeply into the various themes and character arcs of 3:10 to Yuma.