Monday, August 07, 2017

Eyes on the Prize

Ben (Glenn Ford): I mean, I don't go around just shootin' people down. I work quiet, like you.

Dan (Van Heflin): All right, so you're quiet like me. Well, then, shut up like me.

Glenn Ford's character in "3:10 to Yuma," which premiered on this day in 1957, reminds me of some guys I knew in high school.

Now, when I say I knew them, I mean we were acquaintances. We passed each other in the halls. Sometimes we had classes together. But they were never my friends, and I was never theirs.

They were the kind of guys who cut corners, who figure it is easier to take what they want than to put in the effort required to acquire it, whether it is a good grade or money or a car — or the affection of a beautiful (and even not–so–beautiful) girl.

Of course, it is easier. It's always easier to cut corners. It just isn't particularly honest.

Ford was like that in "3:10 to Yuma." He was the leader of a ruthless criminal gang that started to rob a stagecoach of its shipment of gold and wound up gunning down the driver of the stagecoach. After the shooting Ford and his gang went into town posing as cowhands and got drinks at the local saloon. Ford seduced the pretty but lonely barmaid (Felicia Farr), a decision that would cost him his freedom as it gave those who were pursuing him time and opportunity to catch him.

Farr was like many of the girls I knew in high school. She was friendly enough to the males she saw each day, but she had a real weakness for the bad boys, the ones who were usually in trouble. The bad boys didn't stick around long, either. They were usually the love 'em and leave 'em types.

And the bad boys were the smooth talkers. Ford told Farr the kinds of things he knew she wanted to hear.

That made an impression on Farr, who didn't really play an extensive role in the movie. She was there mostly to give the viewers an idea of what kind of man Ford was. Mission accomplished.

"Some men you see every day for 10 years and you never notice," she remarked shortly after she apparently went to bed with Ford (1950s viewers had to make that assumption, given that they never actually saw the couple in bed together but only as they were exiting Farr's quarters). "Some men you see once, and they're with you for the rest of your life."

When they parted, Farr admitted — seemingly ruefully — that Ford would be one of those who remained with her for the rest of her life.

An observation that reeks of insincerity.

Con men are like that. History always remembers the con men, but people don't always remember history.

Some folks see right through the con men. Van Heflin was that kind of character in "3:10 to Yuma." Of course, it helped to have the insight Heflin's character possessed. He had seen how, while robbing a stagecoach, Ford's character had cold–bloodedly gunned down both the stagecoach driver and a member of Ford's own gang who had been seized by the driver and used as a human shield.

And he had seen how Ford manipulated people to get his way.

Heflin was an honest, hard–working pragmatic rancher who never seemed to catch a break. When Ford lingered in town to seduce the barmaid, Heflin and the town drunk took him into custody. Then it fell to Heflin to guard Ford until he could be put on a train to Yuma in Southwest Arizona, where Ford would stand trial.

It was during the hours of waiting for the 3:10 to Yuma — and trying to be ready in case Ford's gang tried to liberate him — that Ford and Heflin engaged in intriguing cat–and–mouse dialogue — just the sort of tactic a con man tends to use.

The audience already knew how Heflin had struggled to make ends meet and how his family had suffered because of it, and Ford tried to use that to his advantage, offering Heflin ever–escalating amounts of money for his freedom. Claimed to have the money in his pocket.

I can only imagine what a fortune that must have been in the 19th century, and Heflin's character was clearly tempted to take Ford's offer. But he resisted temptation, knowing what the money could mean to his family.

And, of course, no one could say whether Ford really had that money. No one ever saw it.

It could have been one more example of a con man doing his thing.

The story was set in the old West, but it could so easily have been set at any time in any genre. It was a tense thriller as much as a western and deserving of the praise it received.

Nevertheless, I had a couple of problems with it.

For one, it was a little spooky to hear Ford whistling the movie's theme song — which undoubtedly had not been written at the time the movie portrayed.

But that was small potatoes. In the end, Ford helped Heflin escape to safety rather than take the easy way out. It meant that Ford would go on to face trial in Yuma. His reason? Heflin had saved Ford's life earlier, and Ford didn't want to be in anyone's debt.