Loosely based on Elmore Leonard’s far leaner 1953 short story, 3:10 to Yuma (1957) is a superb adaptation directed by Delmer Daves. Shot gorgeously in crisp black and white, Director of Photography Charles Lawton Jr. effectively deploys Tolland/Wellesian-styled deep-focus cinematography for a near perfect western. Both Van Heflin (Dan Evans) and Glenn Ford (Ben Wade) are at the top of their game, the psycho-drama of their exchanges the work of a superb screenplay by Halstead Welles, who greatly expands the story’s characterization as well as moral terrain. The casting choices here are terrific, as the grizzled weariness of Van Heflin’s face perfectly matches his character’s Job-like difficulties in life, while the smooth handsomeness of Glenn Ford (playing against type) aptly reflects his character’s sociopathic powers of effortless seduction and psychological manipulation. Felicia Farr (Emmy Evans) delivers an effective performance as Dan’s loving but long suffering ranch wife.
It is hard to find a more compelling and complex Western character than Ben Wade, the leader of a 12 man criminal gang, ruthless and effective in his trade, but who displays a surprising and bizarre code of ethics when it comes to Dan Evans, his wife, and two sons. Wade is like the proverbial snake in the garden, a Satanic like figure who offers Dan huge sums of money to let him escape.
It is the arc of Van Heflin’s character, however, that drives this film’s morality play. Dan’s financial duress (a long drought is putting his small ranch at risk of complete failure), coupled with his looming doubts about his worth as a man, lead him to a potentially tragic path of desperation. Tortured by the financial temptations that Ben Wade dangles before him, Dan’s stoicism and Christian underpinning (his sons are named Matthew and Mark) prevail, even though rationality clearly dictates he will ultimately be killed by Wade’s gang.
I loved James Mangold’s 5-star 2007 remake, with a substantially revised script written by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, which featured Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and a scene-stealing breakout role for Ben Foster. The tragic ending sequence of this remake is, dare I say, far superior to the relatively ‘happy ending’ of the 1957 original, especially given the arc and honor-at-all-costs element of the Dan Evans character, although this 1957 version does have a terrific and almost biblical final shot of Dan (on the train with Wade) seeing his wife in the distance: without words, both of them simply look at each other, then look up to the sky and smile at the down-pouring rain which has just begun.