Legend has it Howard Hawks' decision to produce and direct 'Rio Bravo' was ultimately in response to his disapproval of Fred Zinnemann's 'High Noon' and Delmer Daves's '3:10 to Yuma.' The John Wayne vehicle, which stars Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, is a return to a simpler, straightforward, and more black-and-white narrative of the hero versus the villain, a clear-cut approach of one's call to duty, justice, and the law. Essentially combining the plot of both films, where a lawman counts down the hours waiting for an outlaw gang to attempt a rescue of their leader while asking local townspeople for help, Hawks' entertaining horse-opera makes for an intriguing study for its implied criticism of the other two, both of which are admired and dearly beloved as classics of the genre.
In Hawks' opinionated estimation, exploring the psychologically complex relationship of the law-abiding citizen and the criminal — the idea that they're both complementary sides of the same coin, that they each create a sense of purpose in the other — has no place whatsoever in the genre. To him, the western theme of civilized society taking a stand in the untamed, uncivilized lands of the frontier is not an encroachment upon the rugged individual, but it's the proper social order of things. His heroes are not flawed or morally ambiguous, but ready stewards of justice. Even Martin's drunken crooner Dude sobers at the opportune time and townspeople do what's expected of them by assisting their sheriff. There's no reason to think deeper into 'Rio Bravo' than what's on the surface.
However, in spite of Hawks' desire for an elementary approach to the genre, his censure ironically makes a very poignant criticism and analysis of the genius behind Daves's '3:10 to Yuma.' What he lambastes in the classic film is actually what makes it one of the most stunningly beautiful westerns; what he denounces in the rather perfect narrative structure is really the brilliance behind its success. Thanks largely to Glenn Ford's remarkable performance as the ruthless outlaw Ben Wade, we come to like and enjoy his company. Rather than being a doltish criminal, he's intelligent, conniving, shrewdly perceptive and above all, defiantly confident. Keeping pace is Van Heflin as the reluctant, uneasy and unsure rancher Dan Evans, whose lack of certainty and boldness not only puts viewers on edge but also generates a dubious, frightful feeling that the harrowing situation will not end well.
Based on the Elmore Leonard short story of the same name, the plot is about these two strangers on opposite sides of the law slowly developing a strange kinship as survivors of this unforgiving landscape. Unlike Hawks' neatly drawn archetypes of good and evil, Daves' protagonists radiate their morally ambiguity as plainly as the sweat pouring down the face of a terribly nervous Dan Evans. Prior to their spending time with each other, we're shown that Evans is a struggling rancher with serious financial issues and a marriage (Leora Dana plays Evans' wife Alice) that's possibly teetering toward disaster. Wade uses this knowledge to play mind games and tempt the otherwise peaceable Evans. Conversely, we saw Wade earlier make a heart-felt connection with Emmy (Felicia Farr) and later express a longing of someday settling down with a family. They may be on opposing sides, but either one has the potential to slip and cross over the line without any real regrets.
Halsted Welles's script focuses on this delicate balance of justice, the ease by which it can be corrupted or honorably upheld. And Delmer Daves brilliantly transforms this few hour wait for a train that essentially stands for this fulfillment of just civil duty to one of the suspenseful journeys of self-discovery — Evans's financial desperation will not be his cowardly downfall and the assured self-reliant Wade, as appealing as he may be, can be redeemed of his transgressions at a crucial pivotal moment. The cinematography of Charles Lawton, Jr. is also a thing of beauty, orchestrating an elegant and stylized use of light and shadows, subtle notions of noir that continues to be rather radical for this genre. '3:10 to Yuma' is a stunning, passionate masterpiece of psychological complexity that builds on the suspense in the aptly named town of Contention City.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Delmer Daves's '3:10 to Yuma' comes by way of The Criterion Collection (spine #657). The Region A locked, BD50 disc is housed inside the distributor's standard clear keepcase. Also included is a 16-page booklet featuring an insightful essay entitled "Curious Distances" by writer and filmmaker Kent Jones. There are no trailers before being greeted by the standard menu screen with static photo.
According to information in the accompanying booklet, the original 35mm camera negative was restored, and a brand new fine-grain master was made from it, which was then scanned in 4K resolution to create this AVC-encoded transfer. The results are simply stunning, as the classic western has never looked this good, revealing every pore and wrinkle on the faces of actors during close-ups. Textures on clothing, the furniture and a variety of other fabrics, from the bed sheets and tablecloths to the curtains and cowboy hats, are lifelike with every thread and stitch plainly visible. The fur and hair on horses appears natural while every pebble on the road and pock-mark on boulders is distinct, and we can clearly see each bead of sweat pouring down the face poor, frazzled Dan Evans.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 image, the black-and-white photography of Charles Lawton, Jr. is absolutely jaw-dropping gorgeous, giving fans a wonderful opportunity to really appreciate his brilliant and dramatically striking style. With sharp, crisp contrast that's consistent from beginning to end, we can admire the several creative ways Lawton uses lighting on the production design of William Kiernan and Robert Priestley. We can take in the many beautiful wide shots of the Arizona desert landscapes. His use of deep, penetrating shadows, thanks to the rich, inky blacks with excellent gradational details, are near breathtaking as they add to the steady, unsettling sense of apprehension, making this high-def presentation is a remarkable beauty for loyal fans to enjoy.
Like the video, the audio on this Blu-ray is utterly fantastic. And as an added bonus, Criterion offers listeners two high-rez options, both made from the original 35mm magnetic master: an uncompressed PCM monaural track or a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Switching between the two, I was surprised to find myself actually preferring the latter, which is not to say that one is better than the other. They're both equally impressive and a joy to listen, so it's a matter of personal preference, especially since the latter is really more of a misnomer than an actual six-channel track.
In reality, the DTS-HD alternative remains the same front-heavy, near-mono presentation as the former choice. The only noticeable, significant difference between the two is that the second choice widens imaging, feeling broader, full-bodied and more welcoming. Precise, crystal-clear dialogue is well-prioritized in the center, delivering every brilliant nuance and intonation in the apprehensive conversation between Wade and Evans. With remarkable acoustical detailing and warmth, the mid-range is distinct with accurate, well-defined clarity during the loudest segments. Ambient effects bleed into the other two front channels with excellent directionality and flawless movement. Bass is appropriate to the age of the film with some appreciable palpability and weight in the music and action.
Howard Hawks may not have appreciated it during its own time, but Delmer Daves's '3:10 to Yuma' is a genuine classic western, through and through, and a striking masterpiece of filmmaking from one of the great names of the genre. The wait for a train while escorting a ruthless criminal becomes a suspenseful, harrowing journey through one man's sense of civic duty. Courtesy of The Criterion Collection, the thrilling western arrives to Blu-ray with a near-reference audio and video presentation. Bonus materials are somewhat lacking, but the overall package is recommended nonetheless.