3:10 to Yuma (2007)

When it’s on: Sunday, 1 July (10.00 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

Delmer Daves adapted Elmore Leonard’s short story, 3:10 to Yuma, for the screen in 1957, putting together a psychological Western that did as much as any to undermine the clear cut eternal tale of good guys and villains. Glenn Ford played a wanted outlaw who was captured and sent with a posse (which included Van Heflin’s small-time rancher) to boom town Contention in order to catch the ten past three train to Yuma’s prison. Ford’s gang hunted him for themselves, determined to retrieve their leader, and Heflin faced a race against time to deliver Ford to the service as they closed in. Despite the simplistic plot, the film focused heavily on Ford’s charismatic baddie, a fully rounded character who needled Heflin all the way to his destiny but had the humanity to do what was right in the end.

A big fan of the film, James Mangold was eventually handed a sizeable $50 million budget to remake it half a century later. He’d already done so unofficially with his earlier Copland, which carried overtones of High Noon, the Zimmerman classic that cast a shadow over Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma. But now he could take a stab at the real thing. Not only did the money allow him to make a fine looking picture, it also gave him the opportunity to assemble an excellent cast. Russell Crowe took on Ford’s outlaw, Ben Wade, whilst unlikely hero Dan Evans was offered to Christian Bale. Two of Hollywood’s hottest talents were thereby on board, and with them Mangold could delve deeper into their stories in order to make the shift in the characters’ attitudes credible to twenty first century audiences.

For me, Bale’s been one of the most versatile actors for some years. Possessing the kind of inscrutable handsomeness that makes him capable of turning from terrible to good characters at will, he’s called on here to do more than repeat Heflin’s noble ‘blue collar’ worker. His Evans is a Civil War veteran who’s lost a leg in the fighting and has since taken up ranching with his family. The move’s a thankless one as drought threatens his livelihood, making him easy pickings for the creditors who torch his barn due to his inability to keep up the payments. His elder son William (Logan Lerman) despises him, while he has the awful sense of failing his wife, played by Gretchen Mol. He takes the job of accompanying Wade to Contention because the $200 reward is something he can’t turn down. In short, he’s an obviously more pathetic character than in the earlier version.

As for Crowe, there’s a marvellous undercurrent of violence to his character. The charisma, surface sensitivity, articulacy and dab-handedness with sketching aside, the impression one gets is of a man who can turn on the nastiness at any moment, and do it with a smile. Crowe seems to love playing the outlaw whose more than just a heavy, almost as though he knows he’s got the plum ‘Glenn Ford’ role and slips with ease from soft spoken charm to ultra-violence.

Just as it did in the original, 3:10 to Yuma turns on the conversation between Dan and Wade in the Contention hotel room as they await the train’s arrival. Whilst the impending violence builds up outside, both men learn about each other, develop some mutual respect and get the sense that each has something the other misses from their lives. Penniless Dan is both appalled and tempted by the possibility of large sums of money Wade offers to him in exchange for freedom. The outlaw envies his unlikely captor for the stability of a quiet family life. It’s a riveting sequence in the film. Both actors are easily the equal of the lines they’re speaking and what is implied behind them, giving their banter a natural quality that grows organically in terms of affection.

Whereas Daves’s film makes the hotel its focus, perhaps mindful of the lower costs involved in filming on a single set, Mangold splices a number of action scenes before we get to this stage, covering the journey to Contention through Apache held territory that the 1957 picture glossed over. There’s also much more of Wade’s gang in this one, in particular his deputy (Ben Foster) who emerges as both a psychopath and devoted to his captured leader. The gunfights, when they happen (and they do, a lot), involve cannon-loud shots that earned the Sound Mixing department an Academy Award nomination.

3:10 to Yuma: ***

L.A. Confidential (1997)

When it’s on: Monday, 18 June (11.05 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Whilst I’ve enjoyed the several James Ellroy books that have passed before my eyes, I can’t say I have ever begged for more. It’s not that I think they’re anything less than brilliant, more the sheer demand they place on my concentration span. Densely plotted and involving many fully rounded characters, you get what you pay for with an Ellroy, but they’re heavy going pieces of work. I thought I’d done well with Clandestine, only to find it was a quickie he’d knocked out in between bigger projects. And then there’s American Tabloid, a convoluted tale leading to the Kennedy assassination that I devoured whilst on holiday. As Mrs Mike siesta’d the afternoons away in mid-forties Luxor, I worked my way through bottles of water, cheap cigarettes and the book. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

L.A. Confidential is much the same. Character after character pops up, each with its own complicated back story and distinct personality, every one either as crooked or as on the make as the next. Fantastic stuff, but I could see why adaptations of Ellroy’s work are few and far between. So much happens, involving so many people, that holding it together on film should be virtually impossible. Ellroy was very complimentary of the 1997 adaptation, calling it a ‘wonderful fluke’ because it somehow pulled all the disparate threads of his novel into a ‘movie of that quality.’ L.A. Confidential claimed an Academy Award for Curtis Hanson and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay, and would surely have won more but for it sharing the bill with a certain Titanic.

And yet there must be no one who would possibly rank James Cameron’s watery epic above a masterpiece like L.A. Confidential. I like Titanic, but this one’s a bit special. If you haven’t seen it, my strong recommendation would be to ensure you’re sat comfortably for Film4’s screening tonight. Record it, because after watching it you’ll want to do so all over again, only with the benefit of hindsight so you can see how cleverly the strands have been woven together, how sublime the entire cast is and the layers within the characters they play. Or maybe you’ll just replay it for your favourite moment. Mine is the look on Guy Pearce’s face when another character says the words ‘Rollo Tomasi’ at a crucial moment. It beats the unfortunate meeting in the diner involving Lana Turner. Or the bit where Kevin Spacey’s ‘celebrity cop’ pockets a packet of marijuana after a drugs bust. Or the powerhouse performance put in by Russell Crowe. Or the seductive Irish brogue of James Cromwell’s captain. Or the ‘window’ scene. Or Danny DeVito’s opening voiceover. Or the playing of various 1950s hits, like Wheel of Fortune. Or just how uncontrollably sexy Kim Basinger is, even in her 40s. Or the period detail.

It’s a crime yarn for the viewer who’s prepared to put in the hours, to appreciate a film that packs more story and characterisation into a running time of little over two hours and loses little of the book’s detail. It’s rightly referred to as a modern take on film noir because the attention to detail is note perfect. L.A. Confidential feels like a film from the 1950s, only one that flips a finger to the censorship laws of the era by showing the blood and letting the characters speak like real people. The casting is every bit as amazing. Of the three main players, Kevin Spacey was the most famous and made his turn as Jack Vincennes feel effortless, up to the point where he’s challenged over why he’s in the force. The real coups were Pearce and Crowe. Both had appeared in Australian soap, Neighbours, Pearce for several years, and the pair were relatively little known in America before their appearances in this. Crowe in particular is brilliant, the tank with a chivalrous streak and desire to be more than a mere heavy. They could have copped out and given the roles to more famous actors, but would they have been nearly as memorable?

It’s simply a superb film, and like all the best ones I find something new to enjoy in it with every viewing.

L.A. Confidential: *****