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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.