In a worthy attempt to focus attention on the work of writer/producer/director/actor Delmer Daves, Criterion has released a Blu-ray edition of his 1956 Western Jubal. It's a rather odd choice for the label, which specializes in gold-standard editions of established classics and revered cult films. On the surface, Jubal may sound like a standard horse opera, especially with the title role played by reliable-but-unexciting Glenn Ford. However, the reason why Criterion sought to have the movie re-evaluated is immediately apparent. This is an unusually mature Western with a very dramatic story line that builds in intensity under Daves' assured direction. Ford plays Jubal Troop, a troubled loner and drifter, who is saved from certain death in the mountains by Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine), a boisterous but kind prominent rancher who nurses Jubal back to health and rewards him with a job on his ranch. It isn't long before Jubal proves his worth and impresses Shep enough to make him the new foreman- an act that offends and alienates another, long-time ranch hand, "Pinky" Pinkus (Rod Steiger), who had sought the position himself. Jubal's seemingly idyllic situation is further hampered by the fact that Shep's sultry Canadian wife Mae (Valerie French) is disgusted by her husband's boorish behavior and his tendency to treat her as a prized steer. Clearly suffering from sexual frustration, the isolated woman exists in a world of misogynistic men. It isn't long before she's making eyes at Jubal, who must summon all of his willpower to resist her advances out of respect for his friendship with Shep. Adding to the rising tensions is the fact that Mae had once had a fling with "Pinky" and he can't accept the fact that she now favors Jubal. The intricate plot takes numerous turns leading to Mae's manipulation of Shep and Jubal by implying to her husband that she has slept with his ranch foreman. This sets in motion a series of tragic circumstances.
Although Daves is best known for his seminal Western 3:10 to Yuma, there is much in Jubal that rivals that classic. Daves makes full use of the magnificent Wyoming locations, using the widescreen process as effectively as George Stevens did with Shane. While the personal relationships of the principal characters are perpetually in crisis mode, Daves seems to use the sweeping cinematography to intentionally dwarf the key players, as though to imply that, in the end, we're all just rather inconsequential figures in nature's landscape. The performances are all first rate, and this may well be the most effective performance of Glenn Ford's career. His low-key approach to acting has often been dismissed as boring, but Ford always brought a quiet intensity and "guy next door" quality to each of his performances. As Jubal, he's just a shy man who wants to get through the demons of his past by starting a new life that is unblemished by personal stress. Instead, he finds himself in the unlikely situation of being embroiled in a cauldron of sexual tension, betrayal and violent death. Ernest Borgnine is terrific as the hapless Shep, a likable "man's man" who remains oblivious to the fact that the wife he so adores has nothing but contempt for him. Rod Steiger seems a bit out of place here, as he as always seemed far more comfortable in gritty, urban dramas. Valerie French practically steams up the screen as the femme fatale at the heart of the deception that endangers the men in her life. She clearly the villain, but you can't help but empathize with her plight, which must have mirrored that of countless women of the plains: she is trapped in a man's world of endless work with little appreciation for her femininity beyond her "duty" to provide sex.
The Criterion transfer is flawless and the colors leap off the screen. Frustratingly, the film is devoid of any bonus extras. It would have been a nice touch to hear a film scholar discuss the film and Daves' work in general. However, there is a booklet that contains a lengthy and informative essay by Kent Jones. If you like Western, this one is a "must".