Rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) finds troubled wanderer Jubal Troop (Glenn Ford) injured in the woods. He gives him shelter then offers him a job as a cow-hand. Jubal's honesty and hard-work quickly gain Shep's trust along with the admiration of the boss' beautiful French-Canadian wife, Mae (Valerie French). Trapped in a loveless marriage, Mae makes advances towards Jubal which he resists. Partly out of loyalty to Shep though Jubal is also more taken with Naomi (Felicia Farr), a young Mormon whose family he shelters on Shep's land. However, the despicable Pinky (Rod Steiger), until now Shep's top hand and used to Mae's favours himself, seizes the chance to stir trouble and spark tragedy.
One of the regrettable myths perpetuated by fans of Italian westerns is that by comparison classic Fifties westerns were one-dimensional, morally simplistic and populated with cardboard characters. On the contrary the Fifties were the great era of the psychological western as exemplified by key works by the likes of Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Delmer Daves. Among the most accomplished yet oft-overlooked western auteurs, Daves delivered the landmark anti-racist Broken Arrow (1950), the compelling The Last Wagon (1956) and the original 3:10 to Yuma (1957) among many others. On its initial release Jubal was sadly notable largely for drawing a snarky review from notorious blowhard critic Bosley Crowther written entirely in verse. But through the years it has endured as one of Daves most devastating and multilayered works. The magnificent scenic photography of Charles Lawton Jr. supplies an epic backdrop to this torrid tale of sexual tension, brooding resentment, and simmering psychological angst, based on the 1939 novel Jubal Troop by Paul Wellman but part-inspired by William Shakespeare's Othello.
Each of the principal characters fixate on Jubal Troop in their own particular way. Whether it is the almost paternal affection he inspires in the uncouth but affable Shep, the desperation and lust instilled in Mae or the seething resentment drawn from Pinky. It is interesting to compare Daves' subtle yet nuanced exploration of a stock western archetype: the wandering stranger stirs up a placid community, with how it is used in a later, more self-conscious, overtly psychological western like Blue (1968) with Terence Stamp. More often than not in those later westerns the protagonist is something of a blank slate which is not how Jubal is portrayed by a compelling Glenn Ford. Jubal believes he is dogged by bad luck and, sure enough, Shep proves both his salvation and doom. There is a particularly moving scene where Jubal opens up to Naomi about his past: his father's self-sacrifice and his mother's indifference to whether he lived or died, that showcases Ford's understated strengths as an actor.
Working with co-writer Russell S. Hughes, Daves layers the film with undertones of various intriguing hues from the homoerotic aspects of the Shep-Jubal-Pinky triangle to the more overt sexual longing between Jubal and Mae. There are subtle Biblical allusions to the story with Jubal cast as the lost soul stranded in purgatory, facing temptation before Naomi gives him a glimpse of the promised land. Also Oedipal undertones with Jubal haunted by his inability to hold onto a loving father figure. Strong casting ensures this is a uniformly well-acted film. Aside from the central triumvirate of Ford, Borgnine and Steiger (the latter two snarling or sneering their way through scenes as only they could), dark-haired, bright-eyed British actress Valerie French exudes the right mix of sensuality, danger and tragic vulnerability as the complex Mae. She is contrasted with saintly and wholesome Mormon good girl Naomi played by Felicia Farr (Jack Lemmon's wife) in the one dramatic trope that dates Jubal as a Fifties western though their relationship is heartwarming. Alongside welcome glimpses of reliable character players Noah Beery Jr. and goggle-eyed Jack Elam, Charles Bronson fans can savour a meaty role for ol' stone-face as the one cowboy in Jubal's corner. Who the heck would want to tangle with Ford and Bronson?
American director best known for the 1959 melodrama A Summer Place, but who also directed nearly 30 films and wrote many more over a 40-year career. The law graduate made his debut in 1943 with the war drama Destination Tokyo with Cary Grant, and other notable films include the Bogart/Bacall noir Dark Passage, Never Let Me Go with Clark Gable, and the Westerns Broken Arrow, The Last Wagon and 3:10 To Yuma, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel. After the success of A Summer Place, Daves followed with equally soapy offerings Susan Slade, Rome Adventure and The Battle Of The Villa Fiorita. Daves also wrote or co-wrote the screenplays to classics The Petrified Forest, Love Affair and An Affair to Remember.