Tag Archives: Elmore Leonard

Joe Kidd

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 24, 2014

Joe Kidd—Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, John Saxon, Don Stroud, Stella Garcia (1972; Dir:  John Sturges)

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One of the last films directed by John Sturges, with a screenplay written by Elmore Leonard.  The plot is similar to that of Valdez is Coming, which was also based on a novel by Leonard and made about the same time.  This is more predictable than Valdez, mostly by having Clint Eastwood playing Clint Eastwood in the title role but also by having a less organic plot.

This story is set in pre-statehood New Mexico Territory in 1912, starting in the small town of Sinola.  Joe Kidd (Eastwood) is a former bounty hunter and tracker hired by big rancher Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to help his band of well-armed thugs find Luis Chama (John Saxon), a local Latino bandit chieftain/freedom fighter/land-reform agitator.  As Harlan shows himself to be merciless and his thugs brutalize those of Latino descent they come across, Kidd realizes his mistake.  He’s fired by Harlan before he can quit, and manages to escape with Chama’s girlfriend Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia), only to find that Chama is not as noble as the native populace would like to believe, either.  There’s a great chase through the mountains, as Kidd hunts Harlan, who’s hunting Chama and Kidd.

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Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) uses an unusual modern pistol to defend himself and Helen Sanchez (Stella Garcia).

Helen Sanchez:  “He is right.  We must give ourselves up, don’t you see?  There is no other way.”

Luis Chama [clearly not a proto-feminist]:  “I do not care what you think.  I take you along for cold nights and days when there is nothing to do.  Not to hear you talk.”

Kidd leads Harlan and his men back to town, where the fight concludes in a not-terribly-believable fight, with lots of bullets flying and an improbable train crash.

Interesting elements:  (a) The brick-red pants Eastwood wears throughout the movie.  This must be an early 1970s thing.  Compare them with the red pants worn by Jim Brown in Take a Hard Ride, for example.  (b) The specialized “modern” firearms used by Harlan’s men, including the Mauser C96 pistol-with-a-stock (1896) used by Lamarr Sims (Don Stroud) and the long-range rifle–a Remington-Keene sporter (1880)–used by Olin Mingo (James Wainwright).  Special care is also shown with Frank Harlan’s Custom Savage 99 (1899) and Joe Kidd’s Cased Ross Rifle model M-10 (1910).  Apparently Elmore Leonard was behind the scrupulousness about period weaponry.  (c) Harlan’s repeated deliberate mispronunciation of Chama’s name (as “Louis Chayma”).  It gets irritating, as perhaps it’s meant to do.

JoeKiddMauser C96 “Broomhandle” Mauser

Set in 1912 New Mexico, and shot at Lone Pine and Old Tucson.  This is not one of Eastwood’s best, or Sturges’, although it’s watchable.  Apparently director Sturges commented in 1978, “There are a lot of holes in Joe Kidd–some in the script that were never fixed and some resulting from cuts made because scenes just didn’t play.”  The Harlan thugs are too unrelievedly bad and despicable, and the plot is a bit outlandish (the big finale involving a train and a not-well-choreographed shootout).  With the Sturges-Eastwood-Duvall-Leonard team, one hopes this would be better than it turns out to be.  Not a long movie, at 88 minutes.  The score is by Lalo Schifrin, who did the memorable Mission:  Impossible theme.  For another western interested in post-frontier technology and weaponry, see Big Jake, set in 1909 and made about the same time as this one.

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Hombre

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 25, 2013

Hombre—Paul Newman, Richard Boone, Diane Cilento, Fredric March, Martin Balsam, Barbara Rush, Cameron Mitchell, Peter Lazer, Margaret Blye (1967; Dir:  Martin Ritt)

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A grim variation on Stagecoach, in which a number of strangers are thrown together on a stagecoach, and social prejudices and real personalities are revealed as the stage is under attack.  In this case, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, the attack comes from bandits instead of Indians.

hombreRussellIndian Russell as Apache.

The credit sequence is excellent, with old photographs (apparent or real) of the desert west and Apaches accompanied by music (by David Rose) which is not overtly “western.”  The hombre of the title is a man who looks like an Indian (long hair, Apache headband) but is obviously a white man.  He is John Russell (Paul Newman), abducted by Apaches as a child and raised by them.  When eventually rescued and adopted by a white man, he went back to the Apaches and served among the police on the San Carlos reservation.  As he meets with station manager Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam in dark makeup) in a cantina, two Apaches who came with him are taunted by crass cowboys, and Russell takes decisive and quick action so we see his capabilities early.  His white foster father has died and left him a boarding house run by Jessie (Diane Cilento), a widow of a certain age and experience who is capable at the business and is sharing a bed with the local sheriff, Frank Braden (Cameron Mitchell).  Russell, who has cut his hair and now looks completely white, checks out the house but decides to sell it.  Jessie is therefore out of a job and pushes Braden to marry her.  He, however, feels at a dead end himself at 40 and refuses. 

The local stage line is shutting down, but a wealthy woman and her much older husband, Audra and Dr. Alex Favor (Barbara Rush and Fredric March in one of his last roles), buy a wagon and hire Mendez to drive it to Bisbee with whoever else wants to go.  That includes Russell, Jessie, an ex-soldier, young Billy Lee Blake (Peter Lazer) and his discontented new wife Doris (Margaret Blye).  A rough Cicero Grimes (Richard Boone, in his bad guy mode) intimidates the unarmed soldier into giving him his place in the stage.  The question is developing:  What do people owe each other?  Russell is alienated from white people and takes no responsibility or action for others, even though he’s obviously the most competent.  What will it take for him to act, as he did early in the movie for his Indian friends?

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As the stage makes its way on a little-used road past a mine, the cultured Favors object to sharing the stage with the ex-Indian Russell, and he moves to the top with Mendez rather than force the issue.  At a mountain pass, the stage is stopped by bandits who rob it.  They are looking in particular for $12,000 that Dr. Favor has stolen from the San Carlos agency, where he was the Indian agent.  The outlaws include former sheriff Braden, obviously branching out into a new career.  Jessie:  “Frank, what are you doin’?”  Braden:  “Goin’ bad, honey.”  Grimes is in fact the outlaws’ leader.  Grimes forces Audra Favor to go with them; as it becomes obvious her husband will take no action, she accedes with a certain brittle grace.  Grimes, Audra and a Mexican pistolero (Frank Silvera) move off down the trail as Braden and Lamar Dean (David Canary) puncture one of the passengers’ two water bags.  Russell finds his bedroll atop the stage, pulls out his rifle and quickly kills Lamar and Braden and takes off up the mountain with Favor’s stolen money.  The rest of the passengers follow.  His problem is that although he is the only one in the passenger group competent with guns and violence, all of Grimes’ band are.

Russell sets up an ambush with Mendez, which results in the pistolero getting shot in the gut.  As the group makes its way on foot back to an abandoned mine, Favor repeatedly shows himself to be unreliable and Russell expels him in the desert.  Nevertheless, they all make it to the mine.  So do Grimes and the pistolero, who seems in surprisingly good shape for one who is gut shot.  Jessie gives their presence away while trying to help Dr. Favor.  When Grimes comes to parley, Russell shoots him twice.  The Mexican ties Audra Favor out in the sun, where she won’t survive long.  The passengers debate who should help her, although Russell makes it clear that if anyone takes down the money, Grimes and the Mexican will kill both Audra and her rescuer.  The debate that has been building through the movie about what people owe each other comes to a head as Jessie seems to be the only one with enough courage to try to help. 

HombreCicero Boone as Cicero Grimes

Unexpectedly, Russell takes on that role, leaving his rifle with Billy Lee to take out the Mexican as he comes out and tries to kill Russell.  He walks down the hill, releases Audra (who starts slowly up the hill) and tosses the saddlebags to Grimes.  Grimes finds the bags are stuffed with clothes.  Russell shoots Grimes and the Mexican but is shot twice himself.  Billy Lee was unable to shoot because Audra was in his line of fire.  In the end, the only Christian in the group was the one who was not Christian.  And he was the only one of the passengers to die.  His dead face in the last shot morphs into the blurry face of an Indian child in one of the old photographs.  (The photograph is said to be by C.S. Fly of Jimmy “Santiago” McKinn, captured by Geronimo’s Apaches in 1885 and assimilated into the tribe before Geronimo’s surrender to Crook in 1886.)  There does seem to have been a third bandit at the mine who is never accounted for.

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1885:  Eleven-year-old Jimmy “Santiago” McKinn with Apaches upon his recapture.

Blue-eyed Paul Newman is excellent as Russell.  He mostly is impassive, as he is supposed to be.  The way he stands, especially the way he holds his rifle, seem Indian.  The tiny red feather attached to his hat band is a nice touch.  Diane Cilento as Jessie is also excellent, with some of the best lines in a literate, sometimes philosophical, screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank.  Married to each other; the pair often worked with director Ritt and also wrote Hud, The Cowboys, The Spikes Gang and Murphy’s Romance and the story for Ten Wanted Men.   One wonders if Russell and Jessie will somehow end up together.  Fredric March at 70 is smooth and slimy as Favor; he gives Favor more layers and much more interest than the corrupt banker in Stagecoach has.  Barbara Rush is very good as his wife Audra, dealing with her cushy life falling apart.  Richard Boone is superb as the villain Cicero Grimes, although he’s mostly deadly and threatening and not as silky as he sometimes could be.

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This is often talky for a western, but not too talky (better, for example, than some of Richard Brooks’ work in this respect).  Ultimately, though, Russell is too impenetrable a character and makes a not-entirely-satisfactory Christ figure (one who voluntarily dies for the sins of others).  While he’s the character we most identify with, and the movie sets up the question of how he will deal with the situation, the answer turns out to be that he can’t.  And that’s ultimately a disappointment.  We don’t really know why he does what he does at the end.  In some ways we could deal with that if he survived and was still working things out, but it’s harder if he doesn’t survive and we still don’t quite see the whole picture.  It’s slow developing and the end is not entirely satisfying.  Not that Russell had to beat the bad guys; he did, after all, in a way.  We just need to see a bit more of why to make the end worthwhile.  The end as shown is very downbeat.  Paul Newman, then at the peak of his career, would end up dead in his next western, too:  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  This just misses being on the list of great westerns, but it’s very worth watching.

Director Ritt was not particularly known for westerns; more for his work with Newman.  This was the last of six films Ritt and Newman made together.  Ritt directed modern westerns Hud and Murphy’s Romance, though.  The Ravetch-Frank writing team produced a marvelous screenplay, with many memorable lines.  Russell to Grimes, after Grimes has delivered his ultimatum at the mine while Russell stands silently behind Mendez:  “Hey, I got a question.  How are you goin’ to get back down that hill?”  The cinematographer was the legendary James Wong Howe.  Shot in color in several locations in Arizona, including Coronado National Forest, the Helvetia mine in Pima County, and Old Tucson.

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The Tall T

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 17, 2013

The Tall T—Randolph Scott, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Sullivan, Henry Silva, Skip Homeier, John Hubbard (1957; Dir:  Budd Boetticher)

It is not clear what the title refers to; it is said to relate to Tenvoorde, owner of the 10-4 Ranch.  At one time the working title of the movie was “T for Terror” (see the trailer on the DVD).

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Patrick Brennan (Randolph Scott) is a former ramrod for that large Arizona ranch (the 10-4), now trying to establish his own ranch in the mountains.  While trying to get his former employer to sell him a seed bull for his own stock, he instead loses his horse in a bet.  (We see early on that he’s capable of making bad judgments, although he takes the consequences without complaint.) 

TallT1 Brennan afoot.

He hitches a ride on a stagecoach driven by old friend Ed Rintoon (the excellent Arthur Hunnicutt) that is hijacked at a way station by Frank Usher (Richard Boone) and his two low-life confederates Chink and Billy Jack (Henry Silva and Skip Homeier).  They’ve already killed the station manager and his young son and callously thrown their bodies down a well.  They soon do the same to stage driver Rintoon.  Usher and his gang try to carry out a plan to get a ransom for Doretta Mims, the woman traveling on the stage.  Maureen O’Sullivan plays Doretta, the daughter of the owner of the largest copper mine in the territory, who’s just been married that morning to her father’s accountant Willard (John Hubbard)—a scurvy choice for a husband, as he shortly demonstrates.  Brennan plans to get away.  He ultimately does, and apparently ends up with the woman, too. 

TallT2 Captured by bad guys.

This was shot with a limited cast and budget in Lone Pine, as were the rest of Boetticher’s westerns with Scott.  This has a few edges to it, reminiscent of the Mann westerns of the 1950s.  It is spare movie-making, with the story told in relatively unadorned fashion in less than 80 minutes.  Nevertheless, there’s a lot of interest in the psychology of the characters, as in Seven Men from Now.  Richard Boone is great as a not-entirely-unsympathetic bad guy.  There’s an interesting balance between Scott and Boone; in some ways, Usher sees Brennan as who he himself might have been in other circumstances.  And might still be, only richer with the proceeds of this kidnapping-robbery-murder.

Randolph Scott and Richard Boone are great in this.  Maureen O’Sullivan, known mostly from her appearances as Jane in the Tarzan movies with Johnny Weismuller in the 1930s, is also very good.  Henry Silva and Skip Homeier make reliably nasty henchmen, in different ways.  Silva, with his Jack Palance face, went on to make a modest career of playing bad guys (see The Law and Jake Wade and The Bravados).  Homeier played a series of kids with guns in the early 1950s (The Gunfighter, Dawn at Socorro), but you can’t do that forever.  Sooner or later, you meet somebody faster with a gun, or drift into television parts.  Or both.

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Getting the girl, for once.

Note Henry Silva’s cooperative corpse helping Brennan rope his legs to drag him into the hut.  The plot is similar to Rawhide and Man of the West, with regular people being held prisoner by outlaws.

[Pat, to the freshly widowed and weeping Doretta, after he has killed three murderous kidnappers]:
“Come on, now.  It’s gonna be a nice day.”  [And they walk off arm in arm.  You might think they’d try to get the outlaws’ horses instead of walking all the way to wherever they’re going.]

From a story by Elmore Leonard (“The Captives”); the screenplay is by Burt Kennedy, as was usual with Boetticher’s better Ranown westerns.  As in Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (also from an original story by Leonard), some of the early action takes place in the town of Contention.  As with others of the Ranown-Boetticher westerns, this was not generally available until the release of the Boetticher set in 2008, so they have not been seen as widely as they deserve.  This is one of the four best of them.

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3:10 to Yuma (the Original)

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 15, 2013

3:10 to Yuma—Glenn Ford, Van Heflin, Leora Dana, Felicia Farr, Richard Jaeckel, Robert Emhardt (1957; Dir:  Delmer Daves)

Dan Evans:  What’s the matter?
Mrs. Alice Evans:  Nothing. It seems terrible that something bad can happen and all anybody can do is stand by and watch.
Dan Evans:  Lots of things happen where all you can do is stand by and watch.

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There’s an undercurrent of fatalistic courage in the Dan Evans character played by Van Heflin.  Dan struggles with his obligations the whole movie, but when it counts he doesn’t just stand by and watch.  The inevitable comparison is with the 2007 remake.  Well, this unpretentious 1957 original from a story by Elmore Leonard has much less action than the remake; it’s more a psychological study, with Glenn Ford’s excellent performance as ruthless but charming outlaw boss Ben Wade at its heart.  The plot holds together a little better, and the ending is simpler and makes a bit more sense, although there have always been those who don’t find this original ending believable, either.  For a western, there’s a lot of talk in this movie.

Van Heflin as Dan Evans is good, but he’s doing a version of his solid rancher character from Shane, the sort of role for which he is now mostly remembered.  This one is deeper and more complex, with more camera time for his character.  Evans is an Arizona rancher about to go under financially.  When a reward is offered to get captured outlaw chieftain and gunman Ben Wade on the 3:10 train to Yuma, where the infamous territorial prison is located, Evans takes the job as a way to address at least some of his difficulties.  Unexpectedly, a relationship of sorts develops.  Heflin’s stolid and beleagured Evans gives Ford’s Wade a worthy opponent to play against, as Evans’ courage develops while he’s faced with temptation.  Evans’ ambivalence is obvious the entire movie as he is forced to hear Wade’s Mephistophelean blandishments during a lengthy stretch in an upper hotel room (the bridal suite, in fact) in Contention.  As things turn out, Wade also has more ambivalence than he has showed most of the time. 

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Outlaw chieftain Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) chats up barroom girl Emmy (Felicia Farr).

Leora Dana, as Evans’ wife Alice, seems realer than Gretchen Mol does in the remake, but she’s also given a meatier role than Mol.  It’s a little surprising how much of Wade’s interlude with a saloon girl Emmy (Felicia Farr) was in the original; it seems a little frank in its implications for a 1950s western.  Richard Jaeckel as Wade’s second in command Charley Price doesn’t have Ben Foster’s psychotic edge, but the role wasn’t written that way the first time around.  Missing from the remake is Henry Jones’s role as Alex Potter, the town drunk cum outlaw guard, replaced by Alan Tudyk as Doc Potter in a different kind of role.  Also not in this original:  the nastiness of the lender and his repulsive henchmen; the father-son developments between Dan and his oldest son; Dan’s disability and Civil War background; the morally-blinkered Pinkerton man killed by Wade on the trip to Contention; and the Indians and the railroad men who try to the keep the party from making it there.  In fact, the arduous segment from Evans’ ranch to Contention is not in the original.  Wade’s gang in Contention seems a little more human and less invincible, although Dan Evans still seems very overmatched. 

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Wade (Glenn Ford) and his lieutenant Charley Prince (Richard Jaeckel).

In the end, Alice shows up in Contention to try (unsuccessfully) to talk Dan out of walking Wade to the train; and as Dan and Wade get to the train under attack from Wade’s gang, they just roll into an empty boxcar on the moving train.  Dan has earned Wade’s respect, and it’s Wade who suggests getting onto the train to get Dan out of an otherwise untenable situation.  He ends by saying that he’s broken out of Yuma before, and the feeling is that he’ll do it again.  That’s probably okay with Dan, who just sees his job as getting Wade to Yuma and is not concerned with what may happen after that.  He’s developed a little affection for Wade, too, if not any admiration for his moral character.

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Wade (Glenn Ford) and Evans (Van Heflin) look to make a run for the 3:10 train to Yuma.

You can see this as another of those 1950s meditations on the uneasy relationship between the law enforcer and the town he protects, as with High Noon, The Tin Star, and Warlock, although the emphasis here is on the developing relationship between Evans and Wade.  Dan is one of those ordinary citizens who steps up, not a professional gunman or career law enforcement man.  There are obvious noir influences here.  This original version of the story is highly watchable and ought to be seen by any fan of the remake.  This could legitimately be placed on a list of great westerns, and probably would be if it weren’t eclipsed by the showier remake.  At 92 minutes, it’s also considerably shorter than the remake.  This is more about psychology (in a good way); the remake is more about action.  Glenn Ford dazzles in the juicier Ben Wade role.

In general Delmer Daves seems a workmanlike director who made some good westerns in the 1950s.  His work is usually worth seeking out.  But he has his champions as something more.  Bertrand Tavernier pointed out in Film Comment, “What first impresses the viewer is Daves’ attention to landscape, to nature, expressed in shots that intimately and sometimes inextricably mingle lyricism and realism.

“He actually insisted on personally supervising the kind of material many Hollywood filmmakers would leave to second-unit directors–extreme long shots, transitional moments filmed at dawn or twilight.”

In black and white; cinematographer Charles Lawton (not Laughton), Jr., also worked with Budd Boetticher during this period.  This would get some votes as the most beautifully shot black-and-white western ever made, if you watch it in high definition (either the Criterion Collection DVD or somewhere like TCM).  The Contention-Bisbee railroad connection figured again in Leonard’s story for Hombre.  The theme song is sung by Frankie Laine:  “Though you’ve got no reason to go there, and there ain’t a soul that you know there, when the 3:10 to Yuma whistles its sad refrain, take that train . . . . . .”

Note:  The hat Glenn Ford wears in this movie he wore for most of his westerns in the 1950s and 1960s, long past when it should have been retired.  He joins John Wayne and James Stewart as western stars with recurring hats.

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Valdez Is Coming

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 25, 2013

Valdez is Coming—Burt Lancaster, Susan Clark, Jon Cypher, Barton Heyman, Richard Jordan (1971; Dir:  Edwin Sherin; the version currently on DVD is said to be missing scenes)

This is one of those movies that time has not treated kindly in a physical sense.  Most who have watched this movie in the DVD age have only seen a grainy transfer with missing scenes.  If you watch it on TCM or MGM HD, you’ll see a nice, clear print.

The plot is a typical Elmore Leonard story, in which bad guys underestimate somebody who looks regular but has hidden skills—an everyman rising to battle.  Burt Lancaster is Bob Valdez (Lancaster was 57 but in great shape), a New Mexico peace officer of Latino ancestry.  He is forced by powerful rancher Frank Tanner (John Cypher) to.kill a black man accused of murder.  Valdez asks the rancher for $100 in reparations for the black man’s pregnant Indian widow, and in response is almost killed by the rancher’s henchmen.  They beat him badly, tie him to a cross and drive him out into the barren mountains to die.  After a brief recuperation, Valdez suits up in his old gear from his days as an army scout.  He takes to the mountains of his own volition, resurrecting his tracking and hunting skills from earlier days scouting Apaches for the army and Gen. Crook, “before I know better.”  He captures one of the rancher’s men and sends him back with the message “Valdez is coming.”  The hunt is on in earnest, with the prey becoming the hunter.

valdeziscoming2 Valdez_Is_Coming.

Valdez captures the rancher’s girlfriend (Susan Clark), who is also the widow of the man the original black man was supposed to have murdered.  She becomes his unwilling companion as he hunts Tanner and his men while they’re hunting him.  Over time, she develops an attraction to Valdez because of his tired decency, and because he treats her better than the other men she has known.  Leading Tanner’s men on the hunt is El Segundo (Barton Heyman), Tanner’s Mexican foreman who comes to his own grudging respect for Valdez.  Richard Jordan plays a Tanner gunman who releases Valdez from his cross and is then captured by Valdez in turn.

El Segundo:  [after pausing and nervously clearing his throat]  Tell me something… Who are you?
Valdez:  I told you once before – Bob Valdez.
El Segundo:  [referring to Valdez’s earlier marksmanship against his men]  You know something, Bob Valdez, you hit one, I think, 700-800 yards.
Valdez:  [with certitude]  Closer to a thousand.
El Segundo:  What was it?  Sharps?
Valdez:  [nods] My own load.
El Segundo:  You ever hunt buffalo?
Valdez:  Apache.
El Segundo:  I knew it.  When?
Valdez:  Before I know better.
El Segundo:  You know how many men you kill these last two days?
Valdez:  Eleven.
El Segundo:  You counted.
Valdez:  You better.

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El Segundo (Barton Heyman) comes to admire Valdez.

We’ve seen this story of the hunted-becoming-the-hunter before, in Joe Kidd and Chato’s Land, to cite two examples from the same time period.   This version is better, in large part because of Lancaster’s performance and a fairly coherent story based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.  It also has overtones of racial conflict and bigotry in an early 1970s way.  A movie with modest pretensions, it’s nevertheless worth watching.

Taken together with another Elmore Leonard story from the mid-1960s (Hombre, also an excellent movie from 1967), you can see Leonard playing with unusually capable protagonists from minorities (Bob Valdez is Latino, John Russell is more Apache than white).

ValdezClarkLanc Valdez and hostage.

This was filmed in Spain and the terrain has a look similar to the spaghetti westerns of its era.  Along with the excellent Ulzana’s Raid, this is one of the two “old scout” movies Lancaster made about the same time, among the best of their type.  For Susan Clark in another western, see her with James Garner in the comedy Skin Game.

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3:10 to Yuma (the Remake)

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 24, 2013

3:10 to Yuma—Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, Ben Foster, Alan Tudyk, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol, Dallas Roberts, Logan Lermon, Vinessa Shaw  (2007; Dir:  James Mangold)

Great westerns don’t get released every day, or even every year.  These days, when the genre is largely out of fashion, it’s notable when a western this good appears.  The basic story deals with Dan Evans (Christian Bale), an Arizona rancher in dire financial difficulty who agrees to help take notorious outlaw leader Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to the town of Contention, where he’ll be placed on a train to the territorial prison in Yuma.  It’s dangerous, primarily because the outlaw’s gang is certain to try to rescue him, but there are other less predictable dangers as well.  Along the way, the civilized rancher and the ruthless outlaw develop a certain ambivalent relationship, which really forms the heart of the movie.  It’s forged of honor and responsibility pitted against conscienceless pragmatism, and they’re not entirely hostile.

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Christian Bale as beleaguered rancher Dan Evans; Russell Crowe as outlaw chieftain Ben Wade.

Getting to Contention is not easy, what with hostile Apaches, nasty railroad men, bickering among the members of the party and the constant possibility of Wade’s gang overtaking them.  Once in Contention, the job is far from over.  In fact, in Contention there are even bigger obstacles to getting Wade on the train at 3:10.  Meanwhile, Evans’ teenaged son, who has seen his father battle ineffectually against the elements, lack of water, the bank and hostile marauders on his ranch, begins to re-define his own relationship with his father.

This is an instance where a remake is better than the original, released 50 years earlier.  This remake obviously has a higher budget.  While it has the same strong core story as the original (both based on a story by the great Elmore Leonard), what elevates this version are the performances of the two leads, Bale and Crowe, along with Ben Foster as Wade’s psychotic lieutenant Charlie Prince.  Bale, in particular, makes the rancher more understandable and less distant than he might have been.  On the whole, Crowe plays the bandit leader as more believably amoral, and occasionally more lethal, than Glenn Ford did in the original.  Crowe is very persuasive when his eyes turn cold.  The rancher’s wife character, played here by Gretchen Mol, may not be as interesting as the same character in the original.  There are stronger sub-themes in this remake, though, producing a richer movie.  Alan Tudyk is good as the local doctor, a civilized character who is actually admirable, unlike most of the other law-abiding types in the movie. Dallas Roberts as Grayson Butterfield, stagecoach line businessman, is very persuasive, as is Logan Lermon as Evans’ headstrong older son William.  In a small role as Emma Nelson, a bargirl who takes Wade’s fancy for a brief interlude, Vinessa Shaw does well, too.  There’s a lot of bittersweet on both sides in that interlude.

There are other differences from the original:  The entire extended sequence between leaving the ranch and arriving in the town of Contention is new.  The role of the older son is much enlarged, not always with complete believability, but it does add a deeper layer of father-son relationship issues to the story.  The Peter Fonda role as Byron McElroy, an unsympathetic Pinkerton bounty hunter, is new, as are other supporting characters.  The outlaws, including their charismatic leader, seem more ruthless than in the original, notwithstanding a couple of touches intended to soften the Ben Wade character slightly.  Following cinematic fashions, the violence in the remake is more graphic than in the original, and in full color.  Most of the supposedly good guys aren’t very admirable, but the contrast helps to make the main point with the Bale character:  the real nature of heroism is that it’s rarer, more admirable and also more mundane than you’d think.  The ending seems stronger (certainly more violent) in the remake, although some have suggested that they don’t find it entirely believable.  In retrospect, the violence seems over the top, but Ben Foster as Charlie Prince is surprisingly compelling in the middle of it all.

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Ben Foster punches it up as Wade’s lieutenant Charley Prince.

For western devotees, this is very worth watching, but it earns its R rating with some rough language and especially with the violence, including the extended shootout at the end.

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