The late Delmer Daves is likely best known for his classic western 3:10 To Yuma but his 1956 picture Jubal is also noteworthy and well worth seeking out for fans of classic American western films.
The film tells the story of Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), a prominent and well to do rancher who heads out through the mountains on horseback on day only to run into Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford), a cowboy who, when he meets him, in pretty rough shape and he's lost his horse. Shep takes pity on Jubal and brings him back to his home where May (Valerie French), his beautiful wife, cooks them up a hot meal. After a good night's rest, Shep talks to Jubal about coming onboard to work at his ranch, much to the dismay of Pinky (Rod Steiger), a rancher who has been working for Shep for some time. Jubal accepts the offers and soon enough, he and Shep have become fast friends and their relationship quickly evolves into something strong enough that it starts to upset some of the other workers.
While all of this is going on, May is becoming increasingly irritated by her husband's behavior and soon starts to see in Jubal something far more appealing. Her advances towards him are initially met with resistance - he has legitimate respect for Shep and the help that he has given him and he doesn't want to do anything to upset the man. May, however, doesn't intend to take no for an answer. Shep promotes Jubal to foreman, further upsetting Pinky and some of the other ranch hands, and May's advances become stronger. When a drifter named Reb (Charles Bronson) shows up at the ranch with a bunch of religious pilgrims, Jubal opts to bring him on board to help, knowing full well that the unrest growing with Pinky, who is well aware of May's feelings towards Jubal, is fast coming to a dangerous boil.
A psychologically interesting take on Shakespeare's Othello transplanted to the American west, Jubal is an easy film to appreciate. It's beautifully shot and makes excellent use of the wide framing to capture some magnificent landscapes and the natural beauty of the locations upon which the story is set. The compositions are generally quite strong here, finding that right balance in that they can show off the mountains and also highlight the drama that the movie depends on for its tension, and there's plenty of it. As Jubal and Shep become closer, so too do Jubal and May, and if Jubal isn't the instigator, that's not going to stop Pinky, whose jealousy is at the heart of the conflict here more than anything else, from exploiting what he knows. At its core, Daves film is one that puts front and center the issues of morality, of right and wrong, and of loyalty. Although there is action here, enough to cement the film's place in the genre, this isn't a film ripe with shoot outs and horseback chases through dangerous passes but rather a surprisingly introspective picture that presents some very human drama.
Of course, none of this would matter much if the performances weren't up to par, and thankfully Jubal delivers in that area as well. Although the story doesn't give us much of a reason to sympathize with Rod Stieger's character, his turn as Pinky is impressive. He's angry, frequently aggressive, and he brings a palpably seething jealousy to the part that makes it work. Borgnine is great as Shep, a man who really does care about those around him but is so often too rough around the edges for all involved to realize that. As his character slowly comes into conflict with Ford's, we get a great opportunity to see the two actors deliver some genuinely fine work. The lovely Ms. French is also quite good here as the veritable eye of the storm. We know where she's going with her moves towards Jubal, and she plays the part well, bringing to her character some interesting skills in the art of manipulation and occasionally vamping it up to nice effect. A young Charles Bronson also delivers nice work here, and look for small supporting roles from Noah Beery Jr. and Jack Elam, both men familiar faces to western fans.
Jubal arrives on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.55.1 widescreen and presented in 1080p high definition. Criterion's transfer is up to their usual standard of high quality here, showing off a richly colorful image that generally boasts excellent detail and contrast. The outdoor sequences look the best, the colors are excellent and the natural lighting lends itself to strong texture and detail. The indoor scenes, particularly a few which are a little darker than others, have a couple of minor issues that are probably source related, mostly contrast bounces. Other than that though, things shape up very well indeed. There's no evidence of digital manipulation like noise reduction or edge enhancement and the image is quite clean, showing no serious print damage. All of this results in a transfer that feels very true to source and which is quite film-like.
The only audio option on the disc is an LPCM 2.0 Mono track in the film's original English language with optional closed captioning provided in English only. The mix here sounds about as good as it probably can. It's clean and clear and distinct and it has more depth and range than you might expect an older mono mix to have. There's no shrillness here, everything sounds natural enough, including the rousing score. Sound effects and foley work are strong but not overpowering and the voices of the performers all sound nice and human. Whatever limitations in the source are there are minor, there's really nothing to complain about here.
The only extra is a booklet containing an essay from film critic Kent Jones that puts this picture into context alongside the director's other works and which provides some welcome background information on the movie. The disc itself contains menus and chapter selection, but that's it. A commentary would have been nice, or a trailer, but that didn't happen.
The lack of extras is a disappointment but otherwise, Criterion's Blu-ray release of Delmer Daves' Jubal is a good one, offering up the Technicolor picture in very nice quality and with good audio as well. The movie itself seems like it should be better known than it is, given the quality of the story and the performances from the cast. Hopefully this recommended Blu-ray release will go some ways towards correcting that.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.