I had trace memory only of Delmer Daves' 1957 3:10 to Yuma, a film that I had not seen since the days of my youth. In my mind it was bracketed with a much better morality-play western, High Noon (1952). I am, frankly, a little vain that I was able to recall that Van Heflin played the Gary Cooper part of the good man deserted by fearful townspeople while the clock ticks toward the climactic arrival of the Iron Horse and while Frankie Laine strums and sings off-screen. Of course, so much detail had evaporated from the ol' tired brain that the return to the 1950s was, once again, well, not mind-blowing, but certainly eye-opening.
3:10 to Yuma is a remarkably spare noirish western -- not a classic, but respectable and well-made. At its heart is the near-friendship that develops between the bad guy Ben Wade as acted by smooth and charming Glenn Ford, and his captor, the god-fearing impoverished settler Dan Evans, played by the ever-gruff Van Heflin (reprising his role in Shane). As the two (Wade and Evans) test each other, an odd mutual respect springs up between them. Wade has money and authority and the perennial appeal of lawlessness while Evans is grounded in his ranch and his family. Each envies the other. The relationship is imperfectly delineated and as a result the ending of the film is huddled and unsatisfying.
Slipping the DVD of the brand new 3:10 to Yuma into the machine, I thought, ah, here's a chance to remedy the original. This time, get that off-kilter relationship between Wade and Evans right; clarify the ending. I wanted a suspenseful film rich in psychological insights. I couldn't have been more disappointed. James Mangold's reworking of 3:10 to Yuma is bigger, noisier, and a ton more expensive than the original. It adds a lot of ruckus: a fight with Indians, a barn-burning, feuding townsfolk, a pair of sadistic monomaniacal killers, a gruesome bullet extraction that belongs on the surgery channel, a cursed pistol, thirty seconds of gratuitous torture, and most of all, hundreds of fatalities. In terms of melodrama and gunfire, there's certainly much more bang for the buck, but the characters themselves are flatter and less interesting and the climax, problematical in the first 3:10 to Yuma, is totally botched and incoherent. An opportunity squandered!
And yesterday I saw the acclaimed Michael Clayton, an eastern western. This time the bad guy is a woman, chief counsel to a nasty polluting international conglomerate. Will the good man, Michael Clayton, under financial and emotional siege, resist temptation and stand up for the right, like Gary Cooper and Van Heflin and Humphrey Bogart before him? What do you think? Will it spoil anyone's appreciation of Michael Clayton if I hint that George Clooney finds his place in the long line of inarticulate American heroes?
Here's the paradoxical upshot: there's less of the old 3:10 to Yuma in the new 3:10 to Yuma than there is old 3:10 to Yuma in the new Michael Clayton.