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)