Separated by a neat half-century, the two versions of 3:10 to Yuma are now available on DVD. Based on a Western short story by Elmore Leonard before he figured out he could make more dough writing lean, mean thrillers (52 Pickup, Swag), both versions feel like Leonard’s patented tight little narratives: Good guy has to deliver a captured bad guy to a train that’ll transport him to jail; tension ensues.
In director James Mangold’s burnished-gold interpretation, we have Russell Crowe as the black-hatted villain Ben Wade, the murdering leader of a bloodthirsty gang. Christian Bale is the struggling rancher Dan Evans who, for a price, offers to take Wade to the train station before Wade’s crew catches up and frees the boss. In his insightfully gabby commentary, Mangold reveals the essential modernity of his take on the Old West by casually referring to Wade as a ”super-criminal,” and indeed, Crowe’s character has the insolent viciousness of the sort of baddie you wouldn’t have seen in the more genteel 1950s.
Director Delmer Daves’ 1957 Yuma has Glenn Ford as Wade and Van Heflin as Dan. Ford wears the same small, severe cowboy hat as Crowe, but his Wade — as befits the heyday of the psychological drama in both movies and TV of that era — is more of a devious persuader. Both Yumas reach their dramatic peak not in shoot-outs, but in hotel-room conversations. It’s where Dan is hiding Wade until the train arrives, and it’s where Wade tries to prove his superiority by analyzing family man Dan’s weaknesses. Watching Daves’ black-and-white film now, it seems slower and more subtle, while Mangold’s movie is more exciting and drily funny. Van Heflin, in the original, is more convincing portraying a hero who even Mangold describes as a ”nervous fellow”; Bale’s steely gaze precludes much jitteriness. (This is Batman, for heaven’s sake.) On the other hand, Ford and Crowe are equally superb — wily, soft-spoken men whose intelligence charms many and compels us even to root for the dastardly Wade.
The new Yuma includes three bland featurettes, stuff about Old West history and a trite making-of (Mangold goes into far more detail on his commentary). The old Yuma is well worth seeing, but what ultimately gives the update the edge is Mangold’s exciting staging of all the action scenes, especially the final, intricately choreographed shoot-out at the train station. This is one of those scenes you want to watch over and over, because you’re emotionally involved and intellectually interested in how it was pulled off technically. It’s one reason God invented both locomotives and the DVD player. 1957: B+; 2007: A-