Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The "3:10 to Yuma" Shoot-Out

"Thar' Ain't Room in this Genre for Both of Us"

It's a truly fascinating experience to revisit Delmer Daves' strange little 1957 "oater" "3:10 to Yuma," and look at what James Mangold ("Walk The Line") has done with it 50 years later. The original was a tight little psychological western based on an Elmore Leonard short story, but, as with his latter urban capers, character informs action. And it provided Van Heflin and Glenn Ford two of the finest roles of their careers. Ford, never the most inspired of actors, does wonders with the role of rogue-bandit Ben Wade, who's just as handy with his words as a gun, and is just as dangerous hand-cuffed and guarded as he is on the loose. No one is safe in his sphere and he rules a band of outlaws on sheer force of personality. And Ford ekes out every subtlety, every nuance of his clever dialog and makes it look easy as taking a nap. His is a villain that never admits he's not in control of the situation. He's evenly matched by Van Heflin, looking haggard and down-trodden as a desert-farmer, who takes on a prisoner-transfer to save his farm, and maybe a touch of glory. Such a man is constantly in threat of temptation from the devil, and it's only his cussed stubborness that makes him see through a job when other men give up. Heflin has the less fun role, but gives it his all, and is rewarded by a Divine Intervention that is announced by a choir of angels (who are backing Frankie Laine singing the inevitable Title Song).

So, 50 years on, what can Mangold bring to the material? Well, not much really. It's puffed up with some more action and the dialogue is retained (at least in spirit) a surprising amount of the time (original screenplay writer Hallstead Welles gets the lead screenplay credit). What new things are added are informed by earlier instances in the original and made explicit, some times thuddingly, and everything is tamped down in a nihilistic amoral rasp as is expected of a western post-Leone/Eastwood (but with none of the wit or stylism). More explosions (Two, instead of the none in the first), one in an unnecessary story-detour through a railroad camp. The one opportunity the modern makers had--that of fleshing out the denouement in terms of character, they manage to make even more false, by pumping up the action and circumstances, straining credibility to the snapping point. Crowe's Ben Wade has the same dialogue, but none of the swagger, and enough skills that one wonders just what he's doing staying around the whole movie. Christian Bale's Dan Evans has the same motivations as the original, but his circumstances are worse, and to make his family connection explicit and situations more dire, his son sneaks along on the expedition. Still, its pretty obvious how much Mangold loves the original, seeing how much is retained, but the expansion of the story works against it, and we are left with what's good in the new one...being the old one.

But there are things missing, too. Besides the more colorful straight-ahead performances of Ford and Heflin, there is a marvelous one by the fine character-actor Richard Jaeckel, who makes Wade's lieutenant, Charlie Prince, a craftily-goofy rooster of a character. Ben Foster's performance has some of the characteristics, but is a stone-cold psycho (no doubt written that way) and pales by comparson.

And then there's that Frankie Laine song...

Decision: "3:10 to Yuma" (1957)
"3:10 to Yuma" (2007) is a rental.

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