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Jubal (Blu-ray Review)

3 Jun, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine, Rod Taylor, Valerie French.

Even on a handsome spread, it can be lonely for a straying wife way out there on the range when her romantic choices are husband Ernest Borgnine and the otherwise bunkhouse-designated Rod Steiger. This is the motivating plot point of an underrated Delmer Daves Western that, aside from the missing racial angle, has more than a little bit of Othello thrown in, just so that Borgnine lovers can get some culture. At the very least, Steiger performs heavy-duty Iago labors, though as Daves expert Kent Jones notes in his Criterion liner notes, the heavy Steiger plays also has a lot of similarities with his even lonelier-guy “Jud” in the screen version of Oklahoma!, which had hit theaters just a few months earlier. No singing duets this, time, however.

Criterion has concurrently brought out the Daves-Glenn Ford 3:10 to Yuma from 1957, the more acclaimed film of the two and the second of their three collaborations in all (Cowboy, which for some reason Sony failed to letterbox for 1.85 on DVD, would follow in ’58). In some ways, though, I like Jubal better because Yuma, though excellent, falls a little into that High Noon-derivative mold. Based on a novel by Paul I. Wellman, whose writings were the source of several Westerns that included Apache and The Comancheros, this earlier Western is a well-paced CinemaScope/Technicolor tale of frisky knickers and what happens when a more eligible male (Ford) is discovered in a state of outdoor exhaustion by Borgnine and offered a job and human kindness at his spread. Cast as Borgnine’s wife is Valerie French, who is quite good at conveying the frustrations of a French-Canadian looker who thought she had a ticket to the promised land but instead has to endure a well-meaning husband whose good-natured crudities extend to slapping her on the behind in front of dinner guests up at the ranch house. At one point, her itch was satisfied by hired hands and now by predictably vindictive Rod, who already has it in for the newcomer because a) Ford is a former sheepman; and b) Borgnine takes to him like a long-lost friend. 

As with the same year’s The Teahouse of the August Moon opposite Marlon Brando, Ford was asked to go mano a mano on screen with a Method actor, and the liner notes mention an episode in which he caught Steiger intentionally tossing his cookies in preparation for a scene (but what do you do for the second take?). Steiger’s innate hamminess is even less bridled than usual here, but it kind of works opposite Ford’s more repressed brand of intensity (detractors call Ford a stiff, but that doesn’t quite ring true, given all the times his characters seemed to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown). Borgnine, who was just coming off his Marty Oscar win, is again all “good guy.” Interestingly, Steiger had played Paddy Chayefsky’s famed Bronx butcher (that’s of steaks and chops, not serial killer victims) in the original NBC-TV version.

Ford strives against provocation to keep it clean with his friend’s wife — integrity that gets a helping hand from the appearance of ladylike Felicia Farr, who’s part of a travelling band of (though not specifically identified as such) Mormons. As with actress French, the opening credits give Farr an “introducing” designation, but I remember her as a kid when she was briefly Randy Farr, playing a wayward type (or at least one who gets involved in a notably nasty kidnapping scheme) in 1955’s Big House, USA, a scummy “B” I’ve always liked. Before her memorable barroom scene with Ford in 3:10 to Yuma, Farr also had the lead opposite Richard Widmark in 1956’s The Last Wagon, yet another underrated Daves Western (and a lot of them are, though 1959’s The Hanging Tree is probably my favorite because it’s so damned squirrelly).

The Technicolor here doesn’t quite melt in your mouth, but at least Columbia Pictures (unlike Fox, MGM and Warner) was still utilizing the process in ’56, so it is still within hailing distance of striking. The casting rewards extend to Charles Bronson in a sympathetic role as a Ford defender (and he’ll need it) and Jack Elam as a neighbor ranch hand who isn’t given much to do but comes off as less than pleasant in the scenes that he has. Did you know that before he became an actor, Elam managed a hotel in Bel Air? That’s when you don’t want the Motel 6 to be the only establishment that “leaves the light on for you.”

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