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DVD Review: “3:10 to Yuma” (1957) and “Jubal” (Criterion Collection)

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Director Delmer Daves was a trained graphic artist, and you can see this in the precise composition he brought to his Hollywood movies. From film noir to teen melodramas, Daves brought a crisp visual style to scripts that were not always inspiring. Critic Kent Jones argues, in the notes for the Criterion release of 3:10 to Yuma, that the auteur theory that elevated directors like Howard Hawks and Anthony Mann has eluded Daves. The mark of Criterion finally brings the director much-deserved cachet with the release of a pair of his classic westerns. These films have previously been available on DVD, but not with such care in packaging and presentation.

Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma

Van Heflin and Glenn Ford in 3:10 to Yuma (Criterion Collection)

3:10 to Yuma (1957) opens with some of Daves’ signature western landscapes in black and white compositions that show the vast beauty of the land. These vast spaces may be the stuff of picture-postcards, but they also engulf the men and women who populate it, adding to the loneliness of pioneers who may not get along with the only human contact within miles.

Van Heflin stars as rancher Dan Evans. Heflin is the kind of alienated anti-hero made for a 1950s western. His doughy, anxious features provide instant psychological tension.  Evans  wanders the mythical landscape with his young son when they witness a stagecoach robbery. This stoic father is unwilling to get involved, so much that his own son questions his father’s fortitude. Heflin made an unusual leading man, with a sensitivity tending towards weakness that would have made him a perfect Hamlet. But the actor is careful not to make his character too weak. The quiet strength he reveals is perfectly pitched. He is not a fearful man. He just doesn’t want to be bothered.

Evan’s nemesis is Ben Wade, head of the gang that robs the coach and accessory to murder. Glenn Ford was originally offered Van Heflin’s role, but Ford’s agent suggested he shouldn’t pass up a chance to play villain. Ford’s cool outlaw, smooth-talks his way into town and out of the careful watch of Heflin, but this cat and mouse between distinct personalities turns into a nail-biting, real-time lesson in keeping one’s composure.

Daves made nine Westerns in his career. If 3:10 to Yuma offered vast landscape as a scene for a taut psychological thriller, Jubal (1956) finds the American landscape as a setting for vivid melodrama. Ford stars again, this time as the titular hero at sea in a Technicolor American west. We first see Jubal riding on horseback on a slope, and, as critic Kent Jones notes in Criterion’s typically insightful brochure, he literally falls into the story.

The mythical American landscape in Jubal

The mythical American landscape in Jubal (Criterion Collection)

Jubal Troop’s heartbreaking back-story isn’t revealed until late in the film, but Ford is immediately seen as an ordinary Everyman in search of some kind of redemption, descending from the mountain into the valley of darkness:  the ranch of Shep Morgan (Ernest Borgnine). In a pioneer’s landscape of hard living conditions and isolation, Jubal finds himself in the middle of a complicated human dynamic. Well-loved but naive, Shep can’t handle either his hotheaded employee Pinky (Rod Steiger), or his young wife Mae (Valerie French) who may not be true to her man.  Shep entrusts the mysterious stranger with his ranch, making him foreman, and with his wife. But the best intentions sow seeds that upset the small community’s fragile equilibrium.

Daves’ women are portrayed simplistically. The adulterous Mae finds her foil in the only other major female character, Naomi Hoktor (Felicia Farr).  Farr plays a bartender in 3:10 to Yuma, and is here the innocent daughter of a “Rawhide” group, and the object of Mae’s jealousy.

If the plot seems like the stuff of standard 1950s melodrama, the three male leads pull it off: Borgnine’s trusting, homely ranch owner, Ford’s ordinary vulnerability, and most of all Steiger’s scene-chewing Pinky. This is one villain that would not have been offered to Ford. Steiger’s doughy features have some of the softness of Van Heflin’s, but his carriage is unambiguously sinister, his Western accent gobbled up and spit out in sleazy vitriol.

Both Delmer Daves releases are single-DVD editions. 3:10 to Yuma includes interviews with Glen Ford’s son and with author Elmore Leonard, who wrote the story on which the movie is based. Leonard’s work has been adapted for the movies for over fifty years, from Yuma to Get Shorty, and Leonard finds Daves’ adaptation one of the best adaptations of his work. Both 3:10 to Yuma and Jubal feature extpert essays by critic Kent Jones. The extras are relatively modest for a Criterion set, but movie fans should welcome the bright new transfers..

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.