A young man in the wilderness, at the point of death, is found and rescued by the first man who'd ever been good to him. 1956's Jubal shows how difficult such a seemingly simple relationship can be in the proximity of dissatisfied people, spurred by passionate compulsions. A Delmer Daves western with stunning location shots and a fantastic cast, parts of this film don't really work yet it's hard to say exactly what you could take out without breaking what does work.
It's a story with shades of Othello and a number of great, sweaty love triangle movies of the '50s (A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll). Jubal (Glenn Ford), the young man, gets a job as a cowhand at his benefactor's ranch, a gregarious and simple hearted man named Shep (Ernest Borgnine).
Trouble begins almost immediately when a cowhand named Pinky (Rod Steiger) shows an intense dislike for Jubal. It's hard to explain why Pinky feels so strongly--he derides Jubal for being willing to accept work as a sheephand but the hatred feels more personal than professional disgust. Much of the plot is driven by Pinky's inexplicable hatred. It's a good thing method actor Rod Steiger is in the role to give it reality of some kind with his bizarre but credibly loud and scenery-chewing performance. Instead of being a flat villain whose existence is entirely about being a foil, Steiger creates someone who seems like he has real psychological issues the film simply never explores or hints at.
The other thorn in everyone's side is Mae (Valerie French), Shep's wife. Her attempts to seduce Jubal make a lot more sense; just try to imagine what life must be like, staying at home on a remote ranch, sleeping with a big dope night after night. One can understand her boredom even if one doesn't approve of her betrayal of Shep who really is a nice guy.
Ford's performance is the film's acting centrepiece as he struggles to keep ahold of the solid, simple thing he has going with his new friends for the first time in a hard life. He admits he is attracted to Mae but he tells her there's a difference between that and being in love with her. He doesn't have to sleep with her to find out this truth unlike so many other film protagonists. He just desperately hopes his insight is enough to save things. But the best intentions make no account for maliciously propagated misunderstandings when Pinky imposes a likely interpretation on Jubal being late from escorting Mae home one night.
With some good supporting performances from Charles Bronson and Jack Elam, this is a lovely western and tragedy. Jubal is available on The Criterion Channel.
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