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Delmer Daves's Jubal (1956) was one of the new wave of adult westerns that flourished in the fifties. Starring Glenn Ford as a cowhand drifter befriended by a big-hearted rancher (Ernest Borgnine) while his beautiful, young, and deeply disenchanted wife (European starlet Valerie French, in her American debut) does her best to seduce the simple, stoic cowboy, it has been described as an Othello on the Range.
That characterization gets at the web of jealousy and desire manipulated by envious ranch hand Pinky (Rod Steiger, playing Iago to Borgnine's Othello) whose seniority is suddenly usurped by this outsider, but it confuses the details and motivations. In this take, the young wife is no innocent but a dark, exotic beauty (she's Canadian which is supposed to account for her French accent) in a stifling marriage to the sincere but crude and boisterous cattleman Borgnine; Steiger's cowhand is the spurned lover of the unfaithful wife. It's not even about the Othello or the Iago figures, but the drifter caught in the middle of the frustrated desires and desperate deceptions. This is less Shakespeare than Hollywood melodrama in chaps and Daves was a seasoned hand at both genres.
Delmer Daves had established himself as a screenwriter with a series of light comedies and romantic melodramas (including the original 1939 Love Affair) before stepping behind the camera with the World War II adventure Destination Tokyo (1943). Like most directors of his era, he moved easily between all genres, but he proved his affinity for the western from his very first effort, Broken Arrow (1950), one of the first sympathetic depictions of Native Americans. Along with his fine eye for imagery, Daves brought a psychological dimension and an adult sensibility to his westerns. With Jubal he favors suspense over action and violence, tightening the tension until Pinky finally pushes his boss over the edge and the cycle of violence begins. Even then, the violence is brief and abrupt and Daves leaves the most brutal assault off screen, a suggestion far more powerful than anything he could show the audience.
Glenn Ford had become a quietly intense leading man in the 1940s and seasoned into a natural western star by the time he was cast as the title character, Jubal Troop. It was his first of three westerns for Delmer Daves (they teamed up again the next year with 3:10 to Yuma, an austere, noir-ish western that remains a highlight of both of their careers) and a good match between director and actor. Ford plays the part of the wary loner close to his chest, opening up to his new boss, Shep (Borgnine), who becomes both father figure and best friend to the emotionally bottled up cowhand. Jubal opens up even more with a sweet young member of a religious wagon train passing through the ranch on the way to the promised land. Felicia Farr plays the blonde American innocent to French's exotic brunette, and Jubal practically opens the floodgates of his damaged childhood (revealing all the psychological baggage that sends him endlessly drifting) to this adoring girl.
Borgnine plays his part with a garrulous, boisterous amiability, the better to contrast with Ford's closed-in performance, while Noah Beery, Jr. and John Dierkes offer easy-going support as Ford's friendly bunkmates and fellow cowhands. Steiger stands out in this company with his mesmerizing but mannered method performance. His character, Pinky, is an even more devious version of the brooding, jealous cowhand he played in the screen version of the musical Oklahoma! (1955), and his drawling delivery drips venom as he plants the seeds of suspicion in his boss. Daves preferred the laconic style of the rest of the cast and clashed with Steiger, only giving way because the producer liked what Steiger was doing. It's a jarring performance next to Ford and Borgnine, but his coiled and calculated turn also enhances his menace.
Daves gave the key supporting part of Reb Haislipp, a plain-speaking cowhand whose loyalty to Jubal is unshakable even when Pinky turns the town against him, to the up-and-coming supporting player Charles Bronson. It was one of the first substantial supporting roles for the actor previously billed as Charles Buchinsky in such films as House of Wax (1953). He had changed his name just a year before in another Daves' western, Drum Beat (1954). For their second go-round, Daves brings out Bronson's easy-going humor and understated style, that was so rarely tapped by directors (the notable exceptions being The Magnificent Seven  and The Dirty Dozen ), and the film became a modest showcase for the actor's heretofore untapped potential.
Jubal was generally well received ("The strong point... along with ace performances and an overall plot line that grips tightly, is a constantly mounting suspense," reads the Variety review) and New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was inspired to write his mixed review in verse: "It does have its wide-screen points / Lovely scenery; good performing; /Smooth knee-action in the joints." Shot in the Grand Teton country of Wyoming in CinemaScope and Technicolor, Jubal remains an exceedingly handsome film and Daves fills the widescreen frame with the magnificent mountain backdrops and dramatic forests and rolling hills, without allowing the majesty to overwhelm the human drama.
Producer: William Fadiman
Director: Delmer Daves
Screenplay: Russell S. Hughes, Delmer Daves, Paul Wellman (novel)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Film Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: Carl Anderson
Music: David Raksin
Cast: Glenn Ford (Jubal Troop), Ernest Borgnine (Shep Horgan), Rod Steiger (Pinky Pinkum), Valerie French (Mae Horgan), Felicia Farr (Naomi Hoktor), Basil Ruysdael (Shem Hoktor).
by Sean Axmaker