Saturday, March 01, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (James Mangold, 2007)

Keep it simple, stupid.

On the Gold Doorstop awards show or whatever that was held recently: enjoyed the Coens' No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and Jason Reitman's Juno as easy entertainments that are not in any way substantial (much less great), thought Joe Wright's Atonement terrible (especially that syrupy ending), and felt that Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis was by far the best animated film last year, and no slick and shiny movie about cooking rodents is going to convince me otherwise. Overall, the Oscars were a keen disappointment--I had hoped the writer's strike would extend long enough to force the show to cancel, much like the Golden Globes.

Ah well, moving on. The picture at hand's story began with something Elmore Leonard wrote in 1953 for Dime Western Magazine titled "Three-Ten to Yuma," a taut little thriller where a deputy marshal escorts a captured stagecoach robber to a train headed for a prison in Yuma. Leonard didn't put much into the story--it's simply the clash between an every day Joe (Dan Evans, played by Van Heflin) and a celebrity criminal (Ben Wade, played by Glenn Ford), and any questions about why they do what they do and what's going on inside their heads are left unanswered--or rather, to our imagination. Leonard reportedly was not a fan of Daves' film, mainly because it attempted to explain the characters' motivations, how Evans' (now a rancher) cattle were dying, and in desperate need for two hundred dollars to save them.

I wonder what Leonard thinks of James Mangold's 2007 remake. Mangold (Heavy (1995), Copland (1997)) is an arthouse film director turned mainstream who's nevertheless always strove to do things a little different, and whose emphasis has always been on character portraiture more than narrative momentum (Heavy in particular was, I thought, aptly named), and who's often pulled critically received performances from the most unlikely of actors (shiny gold doorstops for Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted (1999) and Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line (2005)). To say Mangold and Leonard are a poor fit is, I think, an understatement; where Leonard is content to keep his hero's motivations a mystery, Mangold demands a past history to construct the detailed performances he's known for; hence, I assume, the probing into Evans' (here played by Christian Bale) past, and the added curlicues of motivation given to him (a wooden leg from the Civil War that clunks noisily across rooms and gives way at crucial moments, for example, and a villainous banker who holds the deed to the ranch and orders the burning of Evans' barn).

Actionwise Mangold delivers--perhaps overdelivers. An Apache attack; an escape from sadistic miners; an entire town paid to kill the lawmen and help Wade (played with insouciant gusto by Russell Crowe) escape--Mangold enjoys a budget here he's never had before, and it's possible all that money's gone to his head. Which would have been all good if Mangold were a master at conveying spatial relationships and coherent motion--which he's not; when Wade kills a bounty hunter (played with leathery grit by a dried-out Peter Fonda) the body is tossed off a cliff that appears out of nowhere; when Wade and Evans and friends escape through a mine tunnel we're not sure if they're running forward into a new tunnel or backwards, out where they came from. Mangold does best at the climactic gunfight, where the whole town--implausibly--is roped in to shoot Evans, but that only serves to remind the viewer of similar gunfights staged by Sergio Leone in Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, 1966) and C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968), where the pair of heroes brave a gauntlet of snipers. Leone puts poetry and grandeur into his sequences while Mangold has to settle for mere complexity--beautifully lit by the gold light of a setting sun, thanks to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, but otherwise uninspiring.

Which is all a far cry from Daves' version. Leonard may not have approved, but Daves' film, I submit, captures the leanness and intimacy and scale (or lack of) of the original story. Where Mangold's picture bristles with all kinds of extraneous characters--barn burners, bankers, railroad officials, bounty hunters, mining officials, unscrupulous townsfolk--Daves' is mostly a background of distant figures that add definition and depth to what is essentially a two-character chamber piece, a battle of wills between Evans and Wade. It's all in the camerawork, I submit, done with the help of Charles Lawton, Jr.; without fuss, without color, Daves and Lawton evoke a hardscrabble West of petty burglaries and inglorious killings, of rural inventiveness and caution pitted against criminal cunning and courage; in the film's latter half Wade and Evans are confined to a room, and Daves and Lawton makes you constantly conscious of the spatial limits of the room (positions are assumed (Wade in bed, Evans in a corner), distances (to the door, to the windows, to a gun) measured and wearily watched; heads poke into the door or out the windows on occasion, making you want to cry out "For God's sake don't do that, you'll get shot!").

Yes, Daves' film bears striking similarities to Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952), only here the villain is introduced early on, and we come to know him intimately, to have good reason to fear him (he's not just a deadly shot and a ruthless killer, he's a charmer with a powerful, charismatic personality); here villain and hero are confined to a small space, and you watch them bring each other to a slow but inevitable boil.

Might as well add that while Mangold's picture is impeccably cast, Russell Crowe is no Glenn Ford (you feel that Ford could whip Crowe with just his little pinkie) and that Christian Bale may be a tremendous actor, but fails to improve on the caught-in-the-headlights bug-eyed quality of Van Heflin's performance. Mangold's version--a tribute, as he himself has admitted--is a complex reworking of what essentially was simple perfection; you can't improve on perfection, of course, you can at best mar it a little. Or a lot.

(First published in
Businessworld, 2/29/08)

12 comments:

Campaspe said...

Great post. I love the original and thus was in no hurry to see the remake, and you sum up some of my problems with Mangold -- I'd forgotten he did the really quite terrible Girl, Interrupted. A while back David Bordwell did a brilliant post where he compared a scene in The Shop Around the Corner to You've Got Mail, and concluded that the older film was by far the more subtle, forcing us to imagine certain reactions while Ephron cut to show us every one. Sounds like a similar case here. Frequently older movies are dissed as being obvious and melodramatic but it's surprising how often a remake will feel the need to take what was once subtext and suggestion, and instead tie it around the viewer's neck with a big ribbon and say HERE'S THE THEME.

Noel Vera said...

One reason why movies have to be so obvious now is that they're such an enormous investment (what's the budget of You Got Mail? Thirty-forty million easy, I would imagine) that you can't risk using subtlety in the story or acting. If you confuse the audience, they won't see it; worse, they won't come back to see it, which is where the real gravy is. People nowadays don't want art; they want a feel-good experience.

Noel Vera said...

God, I looked it up. Is my imagination wanting--the movie cost sixty-five million dollars. No wonder they couldn't afford to be subtle.

Anonymous said...

Uhmm, guys, am I the only sane person around, or what? That movie was simply stupid, unrealistic and illogical from the beginning to the end.

For instance, if I were an outlaw why would I stay in a small town, in a hotel right next to the sheriffs office, though I know they are just waiting for me? And dont tell me theres no other woman with such marvelous green eyes. Another example, that group of marshalls and volunteers escort Wade to that town where hes supposed to get on the train to Yuma, but he easily manages to disarm and kill two of em, though he was handcuffed. Fine, the boy saves em, but wouldnt any individual with half a brain, take proper measures after that? Make sure nothing like that can ever happen again? Then that illogical nonsense carries on, when they are attacked by those fake Apaches. Though they are all armed and like 4 guys, no one of em manages to do shit, Wade that super gunman takes the Apaches out single-handedly AND handcuffed! Wow, absolutely realistic. Alright, well done, on his return to his guards, they all fail to take him into custody, though hes handcuffed AND outnumbered. But the thing that made my hair stand on end, was when I realized he even managed to take all their guns and their horses too. Jesus christ! James are you fucking kidding me? But there was still no end to that inhuman nonsense. Arrived in that town, Wade risks his life to help Dan to get him on the train to Yuma, though he could have easily disarmed him and just leave. NO! Why would he do that? No sane person would do that. Every sane person wants to get hanged, didnt you know that? So, finally Dan manages to get Wade on the train and shortly before they were to exchange a sweet farewell kiss, Dan is being shot. And that simply breaks Wades crook heart and he decides to shoot all his fellow crooks, who risked their life to liberate him. If you think any sane person would call it a day and just leave, youre completely wrong. Wade, as the master of logic, hands over his weapons and gets on the train to Yuma. My gosh, I nearly fainted at that moment...

Noel Vera said...

Uhmmm, guys, okay, appreciate the comment (and agree on a lot of the points, actually), but if you're going to be cribbing from other websites slamming the movie (Cinemaitis anyone?), mebbe you should just provide a link?

Anonymous said...

Actually I wasnt slamming the movie, I just told my opinion. And I certainly didnt get these ideas from another website, these were my own words.

Aint it just fair to speak it out, when you think a movie sucks? Give me a good flick and Im gonna write a good critic. But this movie really annoyed me, due to the reasons stated in my first post.

Noel Vera said...

I don't get it. You tear the movie apart, but you weren't slamming it? How does that work?

If you didn't lift that stuff from Cinemaitis, my apologies then. You should check out the site; you pretty much think alike.

Anonymous said...

Well,I havent been on cinemaitis yet. And I was thinking slamming would rather mean to kinda talk something down unjustified. Thats why I tried to provide a couple of examples to back up my opinion on that movie.

Sorry anyway, never intended to bash your beloved movie. Just happened to have a different opinion on it than you...

Noel Vera said...

1) You should read Cinemaitis. You practically quote it word for word.

2) You should read my post. How you can get the idea I actually like this movie is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

Alright, Ive read the review on cinemaitis and youre right, our opinions are pretty similar. But I thinks thats no big surprise:

1) Any intelligent individual would´ve come to the same conclusions as I did. Thats the thing so fascinating about logic.

2) Ive examined most of the ratings on cinemaitis and I nearly always agreed. No surprise then, that we share the same opinion on this movie too.

3) Sorry, if I misunderstood your post. You didnt like the movie either? Fine. No hard feelings, bud...

Noel Vera said...

No hard feelings. Actually, I've never cottoned on to Mangold--didn't like Heavy, didn't like Copland. And I loved the original, by Delmer Davies. You should check that out.

Noel Vera said...

Daves. Always misspelling that name.

TopOfBlogs [Valid Atom 1.0] blogville.us BlogCatalog http://globeofblogs.com/buttons/globe_blogs.gif