31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 13: “Three-Ten to Yuma” by Elmore Leonard

May 13, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard

Complete_Western_Stories_Elmore_LeonardElmore Leonard, who died in 2013, is remembered best as the author of gritty crime thrillers like Glitz, Bandits, and Rum Punch. But the author got his start penning westerns for pulp magazines in the 1950s while working full-time as an ad copywriter. Leonard would write in the morning, between five and seven o’clock, and, as he explains to Greg Sutter in the interview that opens The Complete Western Stories, would surreptitiously write at the office, hiding his manuscript in a desk drawer that he would casually shut whenever someone came by.

Writing for the pulps in their 1950s heyday was relatively lucrative: the magazines paid two cents a word, which meant that a 5,000-word story could net its author $100 – a fairly sizable payday in 1953, and also half the amount Dan Evans, played by Van Heflin, is offered for the dangerous job of transporting outlaw Ben Wade to the train that will carry him to Yuma Territorial Prison in Delmore Dave’s 1957 film adaptation of “Three-Ten to Yuma.”

Leonard had a complicated relationship with Hollywood. He drafted numerous screenplays – including adaptations of his own novels Mr. Majestyk and 52 Pick-Up – but he viewed the film business cynically, and seemed to feel that it was peopled with figures not much less venal than the crooks and shysters he habitually wrote about. The 1990 novel Get Shorty is a Hollywood satire premised on the notion that a loan shark could move to Hollywood and seamlessly transition into producing motion pictures. When “Three-Ten to Yuma” was sold for adaptation, Leonard says he “saw how easily Hollywood could screw up a simple story.”

First published in the March 1953 issue of Dime Western Magazine, “Three-Ten to Yuma” is indeed simple: a deputy marshal named Paul Scallen arrives in the town of Contention with the outlaw Jim Kidd in tow. The two hole up in the local hotel where they wait for the 3:10 train that will transport Kidd to the prison at Yuma. Kidd is a bandit and murderer, and various posses loyal to him are roaming towns in the Apache territory waiting to spring him. Scallen knows this, and his knowledge is what infuses “Three-Ten to Yuma” with much of its tension.

The majority of Leonard’s brief story takes place in the hotel room, and features Scallen and Kidd engaged in a kind of psychological warfare to determine who will gain the upper hand. Neither character is provided anything in the way of back story or motivation, other than the obvious notion that the lawman is determined to ferry his charge to prison while the outlaw is equally determined to escape.

A simple two-hander on a single set would not sit well with Hollywood execs, whose first demand would be to “open” the story to include more exteriors and a larger cast of characters. Which is exactly what the filmmakers did in 1957, and again in 2007, when the film was remade with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. In both films, the deputy marshal is turned into a rancher, and the relationship between captive and captor is complicated by having the bad guy – Crowe in the remake; Glenn Ford in the original – assist the good guy in the climactic stages, a move Leonard studiously avoids.

One thing the films don’t capture, of course, is Leonard’s laconic style, which he honed over the course of his career, but which was already present in the early westerns. As a university English major, Leonard tells Sutter, he taught himself how to write by reading. “I wasn’t reading for story, I was reading for style.”

The style in “Three-Ten to Yuma” is spare and replete with the kind of macho dialogue that could fairly easily be transposed onto the mean streets of Detroit:

“How much do you make, Marshal?” Kidd asked the question abruptly.

“I don’t think it’s any of your business.”

“What difference does it make?”

Scallen hesitated. “A hundred and fifty a month,” he said, finally, “some expenses, and a dollar bounty for every arrest against a Bisbee ordinance in the town limits.”

Kidd shook his head sympathetically. “And you got a wife and three kids.”

“Well, it’s more than a cowhand makes.”

“But you’re not a cowhand.”

“I’ve worked my share of beef.”

“Forty a month and keep, huh?” Kidd laughed.

“That’s right, forty a month,” Scallen said. He felt awkward. “How much do you make?”

Kidd grinned. When he smiled he looked very young, hardly out of his teens. “Name a month,” he said. “It varies.”

“But you’ve made a lot of money.”

“Enough. I can buy what I want.”

“What are you going to be wanting the next five years?”

“You’re pretty sure we’re going to Yuma.”

“And you’re pretty sure we’re not,” Scallen said. “Well, I’ve got two train passes and a shotgun that says we are. What’ve you got?”

Kidd smiled. “You’ll see.”

This kind of dialogue is ready-made for film, and indeed when screenwriters adapt Leonard, they have a habit of lifting whole chunks from the fiction and dumping them verbatim into their scripts. What they tend to get wrong – and what likely drove Leonard crazy – is that they miss how essential the spareness is, how everything in a Leonard story is stripped down to its barest essentials.

There is nothing extraneous in “Three-Ten to Yuma,” nor does the story deviate from standard genre tropes or situations. There is a good guy and a bad guy, and a shoot-out at the end. The movies – in particular James Mangold’s 2007 remake – attempt to add psychological depth and nuance, but what they gain in background they lose in immediacy and claustrophobic suspense. Leonard effectively builds an atmosphere of threat over the course of a very brief story – the whole thing runs fewer than fifteen pages, but is a masterpiece of efficiency.

When asked how he writes such riveting fiction, Leonard famously remarked that he leaves out the boring parts. His early westerns, now largely overshadowed by his crime fiction, provide glimpses of the style he would develop into. “Three-Ten to Yuma” is an example of his fascination with the interaction between officers of the law and criminals, and the often shifting ground between the two. His later novels would replace the good guy/bad guy dichotomy with bad guys and even badder guys, but his nascent concerns were nevertheless present in his pulp work. “Three-Ten to Yuma” is effective because of its spareness and style: it leaves out the boring parts. Hollywood take note.