Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Jubal (1956)


Cover, Criterion Collection
Someone has already called this western a cowboy soap opera, so I won’t take credit for that label, though it fits. Glenn Ford is fine in this handsome Cinemascope production shot against the Teton landscape of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. (Ford was pretty much fine in anything.) 

Playing the title role of Jubal Troop, he’s a cowboy down on his luck who seems unable to escape being drawn into even worse luck. Though we know little to nothing of his back-story, a history of mischance and bad breaks is etched in his expression in scene after scene.

Plot. Found afoot and freezing by a ranchman (Ernest Borgnine), Ford is offered a job as a cowhand and is quickly promoted to foreman for his work ethic and dependability. Borgnine seems to be the first person who has ever liked and trusted him, and a strong bond builds between them.

This development rubs another of the hands (Rod Steiger) the wrong way, who takes an Iago-like dislike to Ford from the start and makes no secret of it. Even more problematic is Borgnine’s unhappy wife (Valerie French), who quickly makes seductive moves on Ford, further angering Steiger, who’s been having an adulterous affair with her already.

Glenn Ford as Jubal
Though one senses a hesitancy in him, Ford resists her advances out of loyalty to Borgnine, who suspects nothing. Ford seems not to lack a sense of decency, but lonely cowboy that he is, you wonder whether he might act differently under other circumstances.

Long story short, Steiger finally turns Borgnine against Ford, and in the misunderstanding and confusion that follow, Borgnine is killed. Matters are not resolved until a posse pursues Ford and finds him at yet another death scene, where the truth of Steiger’s villainy is finally revealed.

Comment. I know from reading other blog reviews and reader comments that this movie has its fans. But while the production values are notable, the plot is over-familiar and predictable. One feels hardly a milligram of sympathy for the wife who would brazenly two-time the trusting and thoroughly likeable Borgnine.

Worse yet is the one-note performance of Rod Steiger, who delivers line after tiresome line with the same contemptuous sneering tone. Afterward, you want to see him again in The Pawnbroker (1964) or On the Waterfront (1954), just to be reminded that he had the range of a talented actor. Even In the Heat of the Night (1967), where he plays a similar one-note role, but with the irony to make it a scalding portrayal of small-town racial bigotry.

Saving graces in the film are Noah Beery, Jr., and John Dierkes as Borgnine’s other cowhands. Charles Bronson, as a drifting cowboy who befriends Ford, is also a welcome arrival in the film. Jack Elam adds his own lank and ominous profile to the posse of pursuers. Finally, Felicia Farr is shoehorned in as a romantic interest, a sweetly pretty foil to the darkly lustful French.

But casting doesn’t quite save this movie from dragging. You see everything coming from a mile off. A fresh eye might have given the material an edge, but the suds keep getting in the way. Here’s a sample:


Wrapping up. Jubal was directed by Delmer Daves, whose 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and The Hanging Tree (1959) pretty much excuse any faults I find with this film. But his ham-handed handling of steamy romance in other films, like the tedious A Summer Place (1959), shows his melodramatic portrayal of sexual desire as a weak suit, and it nearly sinks this one. Screenwriter Russell Hughes had a prolific career in radio and TV. His script for this film was adapted from a novel by western writer Paul I. Wellman.

Jubal is currently available online at youtube and amazon instant video and on DVD at netflix, amazon, and Barnes&Noble. For more Overlooked movies and TV, click over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.


Coming up: Richard Wheeler, Flint’s Truth

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