Wednesday, October 10, 2007

It's High Noon Again

Reprinted from the October issue of Providence Monthly.

Eyes Wide Open
by Scott Duhamel

Most cineastes’ desire for the return of the western is so much more than a sugary wish to revisit the simple past, to kick it old school, to bask in the Remington-like burnished glow of unaffected times, elementary genres, and unfussy cinematic rituals. No--the western, at it’s best—is as essential an American mythology as we have, encompassing and including the age old debate concerning man-made laws and intrinsic morality and the continual pull between self-reliance and the tug of community, all the while utilizing a stage that features both the pure splendors of open land versus the muscle and sweat fueled swelled pride of towns in their infancy. James Mangold, a filmmaker on-the-rise (Heavy,Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, Walk the Line) seems to understand all this, even acknowledge it, in his newly remade 3:10 to Yuma, a 1957 western helmed by Delmer Davies, both movies as lean and austere as their shared title.
The original film, adapted from a short story by then pulp writer Elmore Leonard, featured Glenn Ford as Ben Wade, a sociopath with charm and Van Heflin as a rancher at the end of his tether, was part of a batch of 50’s western movies that smartly and subtly grafted psychological intonations onto the inherent physical actions and basic formulas of the genre. These films, of which the most popular was High Noon (1952), but include the sublime Anthony Mann-Jimmy Stewart films (The Naked Spur ’52, and The Man From Laramie ’55) and the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott collaborations;(Seven Men from Now ’56, Ride Lonesome ’57), were mostly compact, unglossy, dirt-strewn examinations of cowboy outsiders forced into conflict by the constrictions of the land, the law, or encroaching civility.
Mangold and his writers, Halstead Welles and Michael Brandt, have pried open the new version just a bit, although the dramatic focus remains on the tug and weave of character and ideology between the down on his luck rancher Evans (Christian Bale), who finds himself escorting (for cash) the notorious outlaw Wade (Russell Crowe), to the soon-to-arrive train of the title, which will deliver the baddie to prison. While Mangold manufactures more action in the contemporary version (the majority filmed with taut expressiveness) the gist of the film is the inner struggle and physical interaction between the two disparate men, one losing a slow battle to the unpredictability and the wildness of the west, the other self-sufficiently exploiting the wide-openness of the far country to do exactly as he sees fit. The new film’s success depends on the combustible chemistry sparked betwixt Bale and Crowe, as did the earlier one with Ford and van Heflin. In both cases the actors deliver, and deliver without telegraphing anything, particularly Crowe, sporting a beguiling manner along with a lethal dose of magnetic viciousness. (Although one has to question the fact that the central cast of the current film is filled out by an Englishman (Bale) and an Aussie (Crowe). It’s hard to believe that they weren’t more than a few American actors-Penn, Clooney, Gosling, Eckhart, Mortenson, Wahlberg, Damon, come immediately to mind- who could have filled these roles.)
Mangold ‘s version of 3:10 to Yuma also adds two new characters to the mix, one a grizzled and mean-spirited bounty hunter (Peter Fonda, ex-hippie avatar, doing his best John Wayne-gone-foul), and the rancher’s son (Logan Lerman), a 14-year-old filled with teenaged contempt towards his father’s ongoing futilities. The icing on the cake is the expansion of the role of the outlaw’s chief gunsel, Charley Prince, a slight figure in the original portrayed by a young Richard Jaeckel as a bright-eyed punk with a bantam rooster’s gait. Here, Ben Foster, virtually stealing every scene he’s in, does it up as a lethal dandy, giving us a right-hand man exalting in his own ruthlessness, and also exuding some weird sort of sexual ambiguousness, unabashedly worshipping Crowe’s smart guy killer. It’s a showy and vastly entertaining performance, made all the while more lustrous by the downplaying of Bale and Crowe.
While 3:10 to Yuma doesn’t achieve classic western status (the original was also a minor gem), and it’s extended finale strains the tenants of plausibility, it’s a fine character-driven actioneer and a skillfully enacted western, lithe and acute, a genre remake that manages to be both faithful and astute.

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