3:10 to Yuma is the story of a peaceful rancher who takes a job escorting a notorious killer to justice in order to pay his debts, save his ranch, and earn the respect of his 14-year-old son. It's a marvelous drama that hinges on just how awful and awesome the bad guy is. Like a lot of good movies, the bad guy, Ben Wade, is TRULY bad not because he's a one-trick pony sadist or fighter type. He's truly bad because he's a deeply ambivalent and intelligent character who acts from his own interests, whether that be to slit your throat or save your life.
He's complex. A lot of writers stumble trying to create a character like this. Building that kind of complexity and driving it forward with decent pacing (and without a lot of expositional dialogue) is a tricky thing. But most writers get tripped up before they leave the gate. They don't create the empty space their complex character will develop in. Showing what your character ISN'T is the frame that tells the audience what he has the potential to be.
In 3:10 to Yuma, Ben Wade's empty space is created by another character named Charlie Prince. Charlie's everything Ben Wade is not. He IS a sadistic animal. He's a monster.
The first time we meet Ben Wade, he's drawing a sketch of a hawk. The set up is clear here. Ben Wade is a thinker. Ben Wade sees beauty. Ben Wade sees a creature like himself. We cut to the horrible, skull-like stare of Charlie Prince riding up to him. His blue eyes burn a hole in the screen. There's something truly creepy here. As he rides up to Wade, the hawk flies away. And Charlie announces that the stagecoach they're planning to rob is arriving soon. Clear enough.
The stagecoach arrives. Interestingly enough, Ben Wade doesn't actually take part at first. He sends Charlie and his men down on the stagecoach (not unlike trained falcons), while he watches from above. Again -- he's the observer. Charlie kills with joy and precision. Ben hangs back, then drives a herd of cattle into the path of the stagecoach. He's a thinker first, and a killer second.
The writer uses Charlie to build empty around Ben throughout the movie. One particularly interesting moment occurs in the saloon after the raid on the stagecoach. Charlie's a strangely effeminate character... and he makes a play to be closer to Ben Wade, like old times. Ben responds with weariness... enough to raise the question of something homosexual in their past, or perhaps a some deeper longing to Charlie's loyalty.
Now, the writer's goal here is not to add a gay subtext to the story. I see no gay subtext here at all. But by RAISING THE QUESTION of Ben Wade's sexuality -- by opening up that empty space -- he gets his audience watching closely for clues as he seduces an old flame in the bar. And by assuring they're watching every move, he drives home his plot points. The writer uses Charlie to pose a question that Wade's action will answer. Suddenly a scene that could have any number of meanings means exactly what the writer intended. The interaction with Charlie frames the seduction for the audience.
One thing we learn from the subsequent languorous love scene is that Ben Wade has a thing for green eyes. It's an important piece of information that ties together some major pieces of the plot. They represent what he can't have. Which is a form of empty space. And the writer's posed another question for us to follow. Who has green eyes?
Deeper in the plot, Charlie's been chasing after the coach he thinks Ben's being held captive in. When he catches up to it, he realizes he's been fooled by a decoy -- more empty space. He sadistically sets the coach ablaze and what do we see?
Green eyes. Charlie's green eyes.
Now, I'd appreciate it if someone could check this out and let me know if I'm right about this. But I'm pretty sure Charlie's eyes are blue the first time we see them. And as he burns a stagecoach in a rage at not finding Ben, they're green. In fact, they're very emphatically green when he's burning the coach.
Is there plot significance here? No. Is there a resonance here between green eyes and absence and depth of emotion? Absolutely. Does a filmmaker use that tool? Absolutely. And a good screenwriter puts a tool like that in a filmmaker's hands.