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3:10 to Yuma
DVD, Columbia / TriStar

A few years ago, at one of Quentin Tarantino's Austin Film Society festivals, the Manic One ended an evening of crime films with a little-seen Western called 3:10 to Yuma. Odd pick, you'd think: It was directed by a man, Delmer Daves, whose name is now obscure; written by a TV scribe whose biggest credit was Kojak; and based on a story by some kid writer named Elmore Leonard.

Oh. Guess that's the QT connection.

Leonard, whose crime novels have inspired films such as Jackie Brown, concocted this tense little number, and it's easy to see why Tarantino digs it so much. In a way, its dramatic pull is a lot like Reservoir Dogs: Half the film takes place in one hotel room, with a prisoner and his keeper conducting a battle of wills while they wait for a train and the trouble it will bring. Though similar in structure to its predecessor, High Noon, this film places villain and doubt-filled hero in constant contact.

And what a villain: Glenn Ford (whose great The Big Heat was also released recently by Columbia) is one of the coolest characters ever to hold up a stagecoach. He's a ladies' man who almost seems like a decent fellow; and when he offers his jailer a bribe to free him, you nearly believe it's for the jailer's own good. But Dan Evans (played by Van Heflin) is the wrong guy to bribe; though he's in danger of losing his ranch, Evans has to prove he's willing to stand up for what's right, no matter what the risk. In a memorable scene, the man who recruits Evans berates those too frightened to escort Ford to prison: "Safe! Who knows what's safe? I know a man, dropped dead from lookin' at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for 60 years, then choked to death on lemon pie." The path to Yuma is strewn with that kind of fatalism, and this witty, gripping film conveys it beautifully.

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