3:10 to Yuma is probably best known at this point as the original version of the recent Western starring Russel Crowe and Christian Bale. This makes a release of the first version a perfect occasion to forget about that history and focus on the film itself - something that is a real pleasure to do. Delmer Daves has been mostly forgotten in film history, especially as a director, since his most famous screenplay work was on Love Affair, which was directed by Leo McCarey. Prior to the remake of this Western five years ago which gave the original a higher profile, his highest profile film was probably Dark Passage, most notable as one of the few Bogart/Bacall onscreen team-ups and as one of those rare mainstream narrative films that spends much of the time with a first-person perspective.
3:10 to Yuma proves that Daves was better than mere gimmicks; this is a beautiful and striking film directed with razor precision both in terms of the way Daves deals with the suspense of the narrative and how he treats the Western iconography so familiar by 1957. The film's storytelling is intricate and sparse - more reminiscent of The Friends of Eddie Coyle than High Noon - which is not especially surprising considering the film is based on an Elmore Leonard story. Daves lets both his cast and his geography come to him, with only an overwrought (but typical of the era) score get in the way.
But the core strength of 3:10 to Yuma lies in the two performances at the center of the film. Although I've seen Glenn Ford here and there in a number of films (most notably Gilda) this has to be easily his best performance I've seen. My wife pointed out that his character has the same calm unpredictability that made Heath Ledger's Joker so effective in The Dark Knight, and while he might not rise to that level as an iconic villain, the film's success is largely due to his magnetism and air of danger and violence buried underneath the surface. Van Heflin, meanwhile, holds his own in a role fairly typical of his career at the time, when he spent more time in cowboys than out of them. His rancher has a dark side (enhanced by his wife's stereotypical and vaguely sexist prodding) that gives the film an added psychological kick.
It's probably the hint of darkness in both characters that makes the ending somewhat disappointing and unbelievable after what has come before. But the final sequence is filled with so much tension and executed so well that it's hard to fault the film too much for delivering the requisite happy ending. 3:10 to Yuma is a great addition to the criminally small but slowly expanding Criterion Western contingent.