There is a moral compass to 3:10 to Yuma that some may find, sadly, a bit dated. We have a man who stands up for what he believes in; what he believes is morally the right thing to do. There is a similarity to High Noon. Like Gary Cooper’s Will, Van Heflin’s Dan is one man, basically all alone (he does have one alcoholic townie who stays with him, but is killed before the final shootout), fighting off a coming evil as the rest of the town decides to give up, run and hide. Time is another element the two films have it common. For Gary Cooper, there a high noon deadline when his former adversary, recently released from prisoner, is expected to arrive in town on the noon train. For Van Heflin, it’s also a train arriving at 3:10 that forces a final confrontation. In both films, clocks or watches are constantly seen building the tension as the deadlines to a deadly shootout come closer.
3:10 to Yuma is a stark black and white film with beautiful long shadows that enhance the beauty of this film. Right from the beginning, director Delmar Daves fills the screen with them. The stagecoach, just before the robbery, we see the horses’ shadows as the stages hurries along. Later in the town of Contention there are shadows as Dan rides into town with Glenn Ford’s Ben Wade. There are similar elegant shots right up until the finale with the arrival of the train. Additionally, Daves use of camera angles are brilliantly executed. Even in simple shots like in the hotel room he keeps the camera low shooting up; a two shot with Dan in the foreground and Wade lying in bed in the background evoking a moody quality. High Noon may be a better film but 3:10 to Yuma is poetically photographed.
Glenn Ford, an actor I sometimes find dull (I have said this before), however here he is anything but. His Ben Wade is a complex character. An outlaw who has his own kind of convoluted code or morality; locked into a psychological mind game with Van Heflin’s family man. It’s one of Ford’s most interesting performances. Ford is always better when he plays a character with a nasty side to him (Gilda, The Big Heat). Van Heflin’s character is reminiscent of his role in Shane; a family man out to do the right thing for his family, the town and himself. Van Heflin always gives a solid performance and the scenes between him and Ford are superbly played out.
There’s a good supporting cast that includes the always evil Richard Jaeckel, Henry Jones and a small but important role by Felicia Farr as a bartender who Ford takes a liking too and inadvertently is the cause for his getting captured.
If the film has a weakness it’s the ending. I was not convinced that Ben Wade would have given in to helping Dan and saving his life. It’s a complete turnaround that is not hinted at previously in the script. It just feels like an artificially quick happy ending. It’s not helped by the final shots of Dan waving to his wife, who arrives at the scene on her buckboard, as the train pulls away. Other than for this flaw, the script by Halsted Welles, based on a story by the great Elmore Leonard, is superbly developed in its characterization.