Anyone familiar with the story of Othello will see the outlines take shape as Jubal unfolds. Jubal (Glenn Ford) is a runaway ranch hand who is rescued from the high mountain passes by a passing rancher named Shep Horgan, (played with typical bravado by Ernest Borgnine) who brings Jubal back to his ranch. Jubal rests for a few days and plans to move on, but is lured to stay by the prospect of work, and also by the alluring presence of Shep’s sexy wife, Mae (Valerie French), who has her eyes on Jubal’s goods from the get-go. Of course, Pinky (Rod Steiger), stands as the ranch bully, with his eyes on staying as top ranch hand and having his way with Mae while Shep is out, and his presence gives us our “Iago”, filled with lies and jealousy, goading and prodding Shep into thinking that Jubal and Mae are rolling in the hay. A side plot involving Jubal’s interest in a “wagon train girl” named Naomi, (played by a Delmer Daves favorite - Felicia Farr) who is on her way through the territory as part of a religious group seeking refuge, allows for Jubal to view two sides of his future. On one path is the true-blue blonde….spiritual and graceful. On the other path is the dangerous brunette……lusty and wild. It’s all terrific western fun.
Shot in the valleys and mountains near the Teton Range, the look of the film is simply breathtaking, especially on the new Criterion disc. Huge expanses of range and mountains are seen in much of the film and the wide expanses give the film a distinctive Hollywood embellishment that elevates the heightened emotional proceedings and dwarfs us with melodramatic and scenic rapture. It’s a bit like porn for scenery lovers. Highlights are not just limited to the external shots, but the darkly lit interior sets are loaded with shadows amidst the widescreen framing and these subtle textures provide a backbone for sexual cheating and maneuvering. Of particular note are scenes between Mae and Jubal, where Valerie French and Glenn Ford have terrific sexual chemistry together. Additionally Ernest Borgnine gives one of his best performances as a naïve and trusting kingpin who’s clearly married above himself, but is completely blind to Mae’s needs. Rod Steiger is in full-on STEIGER mode, prowling, snarling, and basically chewing up the scenery in one of his best early roles. He’s actually somewhat terrifying and toward the end of the film has a quick and nasty closed-fist fight with Mae that takes his menacing Pinky from brutish, to memorably evil in a quick second.
Ultimately, the film’s emphasis on emotion and scenery while grounding us in earthy performances is what makes the film memorable. True, it maintains a bit of a campy atmosphere, with the sexual innuendos, and with Valerie French seeming to wear that bright red smock all the time...... in fact it has a tendency to seem overstated and a bit thick-headed. But there’s something really fun and vital here, reminding us that Sex and Gunplay are equally exciting and in the hands of Delmer Daves, the combination results in a fiery brand of western. I think the only western film that comes close to this sort of melodramatic over-the-top-ness, is Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar. But Daves is less interested in the outsider and the non-conformist. His concern is the upholding of a man’s duty. Jubal is about facing down one’s temptations and choosing to take the high road..... choosing duty over pleasure. It smacks as very similar to another Daves masterpiece, 3:10 to Yuma, where the easy way out is directly in front of our hero, but he takes the hard way instead and finds redemption through the testing ground. Daves may in fact be Western Cinema’s greatest moralist, featuring such upstanding characters who rarely back down in the face of odds, (like Richard Widmark in The Last Wagon) or who stick to unpopular decisions when they know they've done right (like Gary Cooper in The Hanging Tree). These characters somehow have a supernatural ability to resist temptation. Even though Daves has been called a western documentarian of sorts, I tend to see his films as Biblical fantasies if you will…..Good men tempted with riches or sex who resist temptation and who are rewarded in the end for doing the right thing. I’m not so sure life really works that way, but it certainly makes for entertaining and riveting cinema.