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Criterion gives another nod to writer-director Delmer Daves and his collaboration with Glenn Ford, in a western co-starring two of the hottest actors of the day, Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger. Practically a child of the Warner Bros. lot, Delmer Daves began as a writer (The Petrified Forest) and graduated to directing during WW2. He was a reliable maker of reasonably popular pictures as well as a couple of predictable successes, like Dark Passage with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Daves' first picture at Fox was Broken Arrow, a western that became a breakthrough hit. He went on to average one western a year for the next nine years. At least two of them are bona fide classics (3:10 to Yuma & The Hanging Tree) and the rest are at least interesting.
Jubal is a good but not terrific story that would seem determined to prove that a western can be a completely legitimate drama that doesn't rely on guns, horses and other genre trappings. In that respect Daves succeeded -- with only superficial changes the story of Jubal could easily take place in any setting.
The action plays out against some of the prettiest scenery in a '50s western. Nice guy rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) is kind to his men but blind to the disaffection of his wife Mae (Valerie French). She's been flirting with top cowhand Pinky (Rod Steiger), a bitter malcontent. Then Shep picks up Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) from the trail and puts him to work. The naturally jealous Pinky becomes furious when Jubal becomes the favorite of both Shep and his unfaithful wife. Jubal holds off Mae's advances while dreaming about Naomi (Felicia Farr), the daughter of some passing fundamentalist settlers. But the malicious Pinky is waiting for his chance to use jealousy to turn Shep against the unwanted new man on the ranch.
Jubal has just about everything one could ask for in a 50s western, production-wise: Glorious scenery in Technicolor and CinemaScope, top actors and a character-driven script that's about more than the rule of law 'n' order. (Borgnine was fresh from his Oscar success in Marty and eager for meaty roles, and Rod Steiger had been nominated a couple of seasons back for On the Waterfront. The movie even has a classy soundtrack score courtesy of the great David Raksin of Laura. Daily life at the Horgan ranch is disrupted by a hateful romantic triangle that reads like a reworking of Othello. In this case, the hero is desired by a treacherous wife and admired by her good-hearted but clueless husband. The rotten apple in the bunch is Rod Steiger's Pinky, who behaves like a more credible extension of the Jud Fry character he played in Oklahoma! just the year before. In other words, a rat's rat.
Jubal was marketed as an 'unusual' adult western and was not an outstanding success; the advertising put a great deal of stress on the theme of rape. The poster had an image of Valerie French cowering in a barn while a menacing silhouette of a cowboy advances on her. The film itself is an almost easy-going drama that shows good-guy Glenn Ford slowly being drawn into a trap; there doesn't seem to be any way for Jubal to tell ranch boss Borgnine that he's being made a fool of. Unlike the ranch foreman in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Borgnine's a friendly guy. But he's too unsophisticated to see the obvious deceit at work when Pinky gives him the idea that Ford and French are cheating on him. Unavoidable disaster strikes soon thereafter.
And maybe that's the problem with Jubal -- just about everything that happens is painfully predictable. The audience understands the setup early and must do a lot of waiting while the characters catch up. What happens is more or less what we expect. Felicia Farr (who did triple western duty with Delmer Daves in The Last Wagon and 3:10 to Yuma) is waiting on the sidelines to receive Ford with open arms, should he survive his ordeal. Welcome cast addition Charles Bronson is around but doesn't become particularly active in the storyline. Bronson was the best thing about Daves' Modoc uprising movie Drum Beat, as the marauding Indian leader Captain Jack.
As is the case with many scripts written by Delmer Daves, few of the characters 'grow' in the course of the story. Ford's Jubal talks about a traumatic childhood incident, a near-drowning similar to that in Leave Her to Heaven. But Jubal but doesn't learn how to effectively bond with anyone except Felicia Farr. Borgnine never gets the opportunity to be anything but a fool. Rod Steiger never questions his poor judgment and remains a stubborn villain. Valerie French alone may learn something from her reckless ways. Her Mae pays the price of '50s morality -- as a dark-haired foreign woman (well, Canadian) with a sexual drive, she's just begging for trouble. Daves doesn't even sympathize with Mae enough to let her die on-screen.
Performing support duty in Jubal are John Dierkes, Jack Elam and Noah Beery Jr., who affects to lean on a horse rail the same way he does at the end of Howard Hawks' Red River.
Jubal is splendidly acted and remains an entertaining change-of-pace western. Delmer Daves would hit a home run with the next year's 3:10 to Yuma (from a book by Elmore Leonard). His last great film would be 1959's The Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper in one of his last, best performances opposite the wonderful Maria Schell.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Jubal can be chalked up as a rewarding restoration. Old prints and the previous DVD were made from faded elements, and looked it. Either Sony/Columbia has found better materials or the technology has improved greatly in the last eight years. Some scenes may be dark and not all colors appear 100% accurate, but the image is very pleasing overall. CinemaScope lenses of this time were slightly soft and added subtle distortions to the image. The slight warping of shots is there but in HD the focus always looks sharp. Optical dissolves add some granularity, but not much. Happily, more care is taken with day-for-night scenes than before. And David Raksin's music sounds rich on the full-range Blu-ray soundtrack -- in two-channel stereo.
The disc has no video extras, just an essay by Kent Jones in the insert booklet. He mentions Jubal Troop's dramatic entrance, stumbling down a hill suffering from exposure and dehydration. The Hanging Tree coincidentally introduces one of its main characters in much the same way -- both are victims of crime.
It's worth noting the way outdoor filming has changed since 1956. Glenn Ford stops to talk to Felicia Farr down by a pretty lake somewhere up in the Grand Tetons. He approaches her and begins to speak and their dialogue is probably post-dubbed. The single angle on Farr is made back in the studio against a fairly well matched interior stage set that allows for more flattering lighting and better audio recording. Glenn Ford's reverse angle is against a rear-projection screen image of the lake, clearly shot on a process stage at a different time. That's a lot of technical effort for a simple little scene, and a testament to some professional acting, captured in three separate pieces.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jubal Blu-ray rates:
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