A psychological western with Shakespearean tensions, Jubal is a nearly forgotten film that despite obvious differences deserves comparison to the simultaneous works of Howard Hawks and John Ford when considering mastery of the western genre. The film’s director, Delmer Daves, was a gifted artist who had a deep understanding of human emotion and its complexities. This ability is put to go use in Jubal, which involves a love triangle similar to that found in Othello, though the source material was a section of Paul I. Wellman’s novel Jubal Troop.
Cowboy Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) tumbles down a hill in the film’s opening moments, exhausted, and apparently haunted by something in his past. Picked up by compassionate ranch owner Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), we learn that Jubal has worked as a sheepherder. Beyond that, he remains a mystery, revealing very little about himself, and preferring to keep it that way. Jubal seems to be an upstanding fellow, who just wants a job, food and shelter. Of course, this makes Jubal immediately worthy of suspicion.
Jubal’s attempts to fly under the radar become impossible when Shep’s straying wife, Mae (Valerie French) starts lusting after him with all the subtlety of a Mack truck. Shep, who took an immediate liking to Jubal, made him ranch foreman. Mae’s previous lover is the temperamental Pinky (Rod Steiger), Shep’s second in command. He finds Jubal’s past job as a sheepherder abhorrent, and Mae’s obvious flirtation only makes him determined to expose Jubal’s weaknesses. Daves plays out the two men’s struggle as a variation on Othello, told from the perspective of the upstanding Cassio (Jubal) and devoid stripped of its racial elements. The result is a surprisingly direct and forceful entry into the western genre. The loneliness of Glenn Ford’s character is fully emphasized through the cinematography of Charles Lawton Jr. and the striking CinemaScope landscapes.
Despite its vast landscape, at its heart Jubal is a rather intimate tale about human desire, weakness, and misunderstanding. While the story could be set anywhere, by placing it in the untamed western landscape Daves elevates the tension. The emotional battle between Jubal, Mae, Pinky, and Shep truly resonates as a portrait of flawed humanity. These are all people who have lived tough lives, fighting day after day for their livelihood.
Jubal works so well largely because of the strength of the performances. Glenn Ford plays the central character in a way that emphasizes his decency without making him emotionless. Ernest Borgnine, who has just won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Delbert Mann’s Marty (1955) conveys Shep’s likability without minimizing his obvious shortcomings. Rod Steiger’s drawn out speaking style isnt traditionally seen in westerns, but he manages to convey Pinky’s all-encompassing bitterness. Valerie French does a fine job of playing the western version of the femme fatale.
These days, Jubal is a largely forgotten film. Thankfully Criterion has brought the film back to life in high definition; those who give Jubal a chance won’t soon forget it.
Presented in the 2.55:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s 1080p transfer isn’t as solid as so many of the company’s other releases. Perhaps it has to do with the transfer elements they had available, but color accuracy is a bit spotty. Flesh tones waver from normal to dark to pale and back again. Black levels are strong and the detail is impressive. By no means a terrible transfer, fans should be aware this isn’t one of Criterion’s best.
The included LPCM mono sound mix serves the film well. Dialogue is clear as a bell, and the film’s verdant score sounds pleasant. Effects come across full and natural. While this mix won’t blow anyone away, it performs admirably.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following special features are available:
- Booklet: An illustrated booklet featuring an essay by film critic Kent Jones.