Glenn Ford in 3:10 TO YUMA (1957)

A much darker figure in real life than the men he portrayed on-screen, Glenn Ford was born Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford in Quebec City, Canada in 1916.  One of my favorite actors, Ford’s characters were regular guys who often dealt with difficult situations with calm resolve, except there was always heat simmering just below the surface.  Glenn Ford delivered memorable performances in many films, but hit home runs with his portrayals of Johnny Farrell in Charles Vidor’s GILDA (1946) the film that made him a star, Detective Sgt. Dave Bannion in Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (1953), Richard Dadier in Richard Brooks’ BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955) and arguably his best, Ben Wade in Delmer Daves’ 3:10 TO YUMA (1957).

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3:10 TO YUMA is both a terrific Western and an outstanding thriller, somewhat surprising given its premise is such a simple one.  Based on a short story written by Elmore Leonard, the first feature adapted from his work, the story in YUMA revolves around outlaw Ben Wade who is held at gunpoint by homesteader, Dan Evans (Van Heflin) who is in desperate need of money.  Evans volunteers to get Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma so the outlaw can serve his murder sentence, a difficult and dangerous mission given Wade’s gang follows closely to try to free him.  Should Evans succeed he’ll get $200.

Ben Wade is captured and will soon be on his way to the 3:10 to Yuma
Ben Wade is captured and will soon be on his way to the 3:10 to Yuma

Most interesting in 3:10 TO YUMA is how the suspense is built (primarily) in scenes that take place in a hotel room between Wade and Evans as they wait to make it across Contention City to the train (don’t you love the name, “Contention City”?)  Anyway, these scenes cover a span of approximately five hours during which Ben Wade tries to tempt Evans with money and intimidation.  Van Heflin is terrific in these scenes, another underrated actor who always delivers, but it’s Ford’s acting choices in his depiction of Wade that really stand out.

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Ben Wade, handcuffed and sequestered in a hotel in Contention City
Handcuffed and sequestered in a hotel in Contention City
Playing mind games

Glenn Ford was originally approached to play the Van Heflin role in 3:10 TO YUMA, but he wanted to play the heavy, Ford style, which means a guy whose menace comes from the inside out, ever simmering to reach a boiling point that’s present, but not demonstrated with flair.  This is perfect casting, a truthful actor who can deliver a memorable villain through nuance – a grin, a pose and dialogue only when needed. According to an interview conducted for the Criterion release of 3:10 TO YUMA with Ford’s son, Peter, Glenn Ford didn’t like dialogue, a fact that lends itself to the types of characters he played, particularly in a Western in which he plays the villain, enhancing the scenes he shares with Heflin in this case where tension builds between the two in the confines of a small space.  The exchanges between the two men in these scenes are truthful, stressful situations where one is brought to the brink by the other because the first either talks too much or too little.  Both extremes work quite well.

Ben Wade: I mean, I don’t go around just shootin’ people down… I work quiet, like you.

Dan Evans: All right, so you’re quiet like me. Well then, shut up like me.

As Ben Wade Ford never raises his voice, his threats are real but are not delivered in anger.  He is a man with such a reputation that he needn’t voice what he and his gang are capable of, yet without saying it outright or in the absence of overt action we know he is cold and calculating and uses that to his advantage in hopes of destroying Evan’s convictions.  And he does so in a manner similar to a ticking clock, which can for all its monotony drive one to insanity.  It is Ford’s delivery (and his outstanding voice) that facilitates Heflin’s powerful performance because as Wade he causes Evans to lose his cool in hopes the latter gives up on the task at hand.  And by the end of the five hours we know that task is worth much more to Evans than $200.  This is great cinema.  Period.

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Wade getting under Evans’ skin

Despite its simple overlying premise I should mention that 3:10 TO YUMA is also a film with depth, one that looks at marriage, family, heroism and honor.  Kudos must be given to the film’s director, Delmer Daves for allowing the story to take precedence, which results in character development not seen too often today.  YUMA also happens to be one of the most stunning Westerns I’ve ever seen thanks to the photography of Charles Lawton, Jr.  The mood of the picture is also greatly enhanced by the film’s title song, “3:10 to Yuma” with music and lyrics by George Duning and Ned Washington respectively.  The song is particularly interesting as used in the film because Ben Wade whistles it throughout his sequestration in the hotel room, which is unique – another effective, nuanced notch in Ford’s belt.

I’d be remiss not to mention the supporting cast in 3:10 TO YUMA, a fine one that includes Felicia Farr who plays Emmy, the woman Wade falls for and Leora Dana who plays Evans’ wife, Alice.  Henry Jones is terrific as Alex Potter, the town drunk, the second man who volunteers to escort Wade to the 3:10 train and Robert Emhardt is Butterfield, the owner of the stagecoach line whose driver Wade kills at the beginning of the movie.  Butterfield is the one who promises to pay Dan Evans if he’s able to fulfill the task of bringing Ben Wade to justice.

Wade with Emmy.  Ford is as effective in the romantic scenes as he is in full outlaw mode.
Wade with Emmy.  Ford is as effective in the romantic scenes as he is in full outlaw mode.

Deservedly, 3:10 TO YUMA was chosen for preservation by the National Film Preservation Board in 2002 and it is one of the Westerns I’d recommend to non-Western fans because it is likely to change minds about the genre.  Similar in many ways to both Fred Zinnemann’s HIGH NOON (1952) and Howard Hawks’ RIO BRAVO (1959), I think YUMA delves further into the human psyche than those two movies by presenting two distinct variations of the hero’s journey.  First, by way of the more traditional hero in the character of Dan Evans who overcomes insurmountable odds, but also by way of Ben Wade and the rather interesting decision he makes at the end of the movie.

On their way to the 3:10 to Yuma
Trying to make it to the 3:10 to Yuma
Wade and Evans approach the 3:10 to Yuma
Wade and Evans approach the train

Glenn Ford was at the top of his game and one of the most popular actors in Hollywood by the mid-1950s, the second of what would be a six-decade long career, one that was interrupted by military service in World War II.  Perhaps his private life, which included four marriages, was less than stable, but in my view Ford’s career parallels his on-screen presence – dignified strength, determination and subtlety.  The last may well be the reason he is underrated as an actor, which is a shame.  Glenn Ford was adept in all genre of film, delivering great performances in dramas, film noir, Westerns and romance, including another favorite of mine, a film I’ve seen dozens of times, Vincente Minnelli’s THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER (1963).

Ford continued his military service in the Us Naval Reserve for many years after WWII and worked in film and television through the 1990s.  He died in Beverly Hills on August 30, 2006 at the age of 90 and, as was his wish, was buried alongside his beloved dachshund, Bismarck.

This tribute to Canadian-born, Glenn Ford and one of his finest performances is my entry to the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings and Speakeasy.  You must visit these blogs regularly, but particularly during this event.  The list of entries is outstanding.  You are sure to learn and be entertained every step of the way.

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32 thoughts

  1. Aurora, you’ve written an amazing review of this film, which is one of my favourites. The casting is superb and, as you pointed out, the scenes between Ford and Heflin and Ford in the hotel room are tense and mesmerizing. I always admire Heflin’s acting (you’re right – he’s criminally underrated), but this is Ford’s movie and he plays it perfectly. If I were ever to be cast as a villain, I would use this movie as a guide.

    Thank you for joining the O Canada blogathon with such a terrific analysis of this remarkable film.

  2. Truly, one of the all-time best westerns out there. And don’t get me started on those who think the 2007 remake is better than this Delmer Daves classic. NFW! The only version of the Elmore Leonard tale done right, in my humble opinion. Glenn Ford in the rare villain role was simply magnificent, along with Van Heflin steadfast hero. Well done, Aurora!

  3. Yes it is great cinema, very nice look at an amazing movie, one my faves. Just when you think Glenn was the ultimate nice guy of the screen, there’s this performance to show he could be a great Bad too. Well done and thanks so much for being part of this event 🙂

  4. I had no idea Glenn Ford was Canadian. I loved him in Dear Heart, a very different part, and Courtship of Eddie’s Father. Nice look at the man and his career and now a movie on my must see list.

  5. Ford has been a favorite since I was old enough to watch a western side by side with Dad on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps his best performance here. It’s the cat and mouse play in the hotel room that scores points and the respect that he has for Heflin’s everyman raising a family. Farr was gorgeous and Richard Jaeckel another favorite character actor in here as well. Heflin stretches his Shane role here and is rock solid as was customary.

  6. I just saw this blogathon listed yesterday and needless to say, my first thought was a post on Glenn Ford. In the past year, I’ve delved into his films and become a huge fan of his work. I’ve come to realize he was truly a great actor and he is now a favorite of mine. You’ve written a great post here on a wonderful film! Though I’m a fan of both film versions, you’ve brought up all the aspects of the original that I truly love. Namely, the theme song, the cinematography (it’s rather noirish don’t you think?) and the magnificent scene in the hotel room. Thanks for writing!

    1. Thank YOU, Shannon. I too think the remake of this one is a rare worthy entry. However, I still maintain there was no need to remake it. Why not just watch the outstanding original?

      Yes, there’s lots of noirish elements here. Gorgeous film.

      Aurora

      1. I actually saw the new one first and loved it! So there’s still a place in my heart for the new one. It has more action, which is done quite well. But the more I watch the original, the more I love it. I’m almost beginning to prefer it. It’s the song, I tell ya! The song keeps running through my head and bringing me back.

  7. Great review,Aurora and wonderful pictures. One of my top ten westerns. Ford and Heflin’s performances perfectly compliment each other. Wade is so very relaxed and Evans and is so care- worn.

  8. I must confess, while I think this is very well directed, I have a problem with the fact the movie changed the ending of Leonard’s story. I understand this is due to the Code restrictions of the time, but nevertheless. Still, nice write-up. Also had no idea Ford was originally slated for the Heflin part, though that makes sense.

    1. Leonard was both disappointed and intrigued it seems to me from the interview I saw. But it changes the film completely. Thanks so much for your comments.

      Aurora

  9. A most memorable film and performance. You truly highlighted the reasons for the affection and admiration with which “3:10 to Yuma” is held.

    The studio reused Duning’s theme, instrumental only, in 1959s “Good Day for a Hanging”. It was very distracting for that second movie. Perhaps it would have been less so if I hadn’t attempted my Frankie Laine impersonation every time it started, but it couldn’t be helped.

  10. Great review of a great film. I have to admit that I am not a huge Van Heflin fan, but I loved Ben Wade’s devilish temptation of Evans, along with Daves’ excellent direction. Definitely one of my favorite westerns.

  11. One of those movies that made me give westerns a try. I’m a bigger fan of Heflin’s, but here, I thought the two equally matched. You are right too that Ford’s gestures and expressions really make the movie, and that in lesser hands, this great hotel room scene would have been shortened/bypassed–which would have ruined the film. Leah

  12. I have to admit that it was the remake that prompted me to watch this, and it far surpassed my expectations (I’m not a big fan of Westerns!). As you say, it’s Ford that makes it – the intensity yet subtlety of his performance really made it for me, although the supporting cast were also excellent. I’ve got a lot of Ford films on my watch list!

  13. I am not a big fan of westerns, but this sounds like one I really want to see. You describe the scene in the room where they are talking with each other so well, it made me want to see it just for this. Thanks for such a detailed and insightful review.

    1. I don’t consider myself a fan of Westerns either, but there are some that transcend the genre and this is one of them. Glad you enjoyed this and thanks for the vist. 🙂

      Aurora

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