Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Jubal (1956)

The pleasures just keep on coming in Delmer Daves' 1956 psychological technicolor Western Jubal. That sentence alone describes two of them (it's a technicolor Western and its directed by Delmer Daves, two things that must be considered good), but on top of that the viewer is treated to a cast of classic male macho stars (Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Steiger, and, just when you thought it couldn't get any better, a young Charles Bronson), one of the most lovely but unsung screen actresses ever in Valerie French, and a story that takes both storytelling and ideas seriously. 

It's been likened to Othello for the way the characters create grudges and manipulate truths, but while the film doesn't come close to the psychological complexity of Shakespeare's 17th century masterwork (and to be honest, what has?), it still has a lot more intelligence and thoughtfulness than most Westerns of its day. It deserves to be considered a classic. 

The title refers to the central character (Ford), who, rather than being the mysterious drifter who enters the film on horseback, is found stumbling up to a ranch worn down, hungry, and smelling like sheep. It's not the most magnificent start for Ford's character, but he'll soon prove to be one of the most capable, honest, and admirable men to have ever occupied Western. One of the hallmarks of Daves' filmmaking is his adherence to focusing on good people, who, whatever their complications, don't just strive for moral ideals, but actually live up to them. With that in mind, Jubal may very be the best representation of the director's career-long concern. Jubal is no saint, a man who has been on the move his entire life, afraid of facing a world he's never paused long enough to actually consider. The ranch belongs to Shep Horgan (Borgnine), a bustling, aggressive, and often jolly cattleman who brings on Jubal as an extra hand at the ranch. This gives him a chance to finally stop moving and put into practice virtues he more than likely has never actually embodied. 

It's not long before Shep sees that Jubal is a born leader and more than capable of working the land, and thus offers him the job as foreman so that he can spend more time with his wife, Mae (French). The only problem is that Mae is terribly drawn to Jubal as well, in part because he's a handsome, honest fellow, and also because Shep is both too possessive of her and completely clueless as to how to make her happy. After she takes a bath, he embraces her, proclaiming, "you smell as good as fresh cut hay!" You get the idea. 

Jubal clearly likes Mae, but he also respects Shep and considers him a friend. In an out-of-nowhere shocker scene in which Jubal explains how his mother hated him and wished for him to die, Daves may also be suggesting that Jubal is wary of a  female relationship due to his traumatic childhood. Mae is blatant in her attempts to seduce Jubal, but he holds strong every time, refusing to betray the trust Shep has in him. When she first hints at her interest in Jubal, Daves uses a medium long shot reverse shots to indicate their initial distance, but soon she's making serious advances, even going so far as to kiss Jubal in Shep's presence when he isn't looking.  Adding to his troubles is Pinky (Steiger) a vicious, scheming ranch hand who doesn't care for Jubal from the beginning, and only grows more jealous of him when he gets the foreman job. With such dilemmas established, it's not hard to see where the Othello references might come from.

The pleasure of watching Jubal though has less to do with the Shakespearean elements than with the committed performances, the way the film takes its time with the story and lets suspense quietly build, and with Daves' keen visual eye (he's a master of wide, bright pans and tracking shots, but just as impressive here are his intimate scenes cloaked in so much darkness it's as if they were shot by Willis or Savides). It's an incredibly well-balanced Western that has the moral seriousness of a John Ford film when it could easily have descended into a display of pulpy macho posturing.

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