I’ve decided to try a new series on for size here at ‘A Fistful of Films’. It’s called ‘Five Nights With…’ and it’ll take place on the first full week of each month. How this will work is that I’m going to take five films related by a single subject (actor, director, screenwriter, cinematographer, theme, release year…etc.) and then watch them one night at a time (Sunday-Thursday) and then review them the following day. So, today I will review the film I saw last night, and tomorrow the film I watch tonight and so on and so forth. What I’ll do on Friday is announce the five films and ‘connection’ for next month’s posts that way you can follow along if you’d like. I should have made this announcement last week, but consider this a test run!
So, my first batch of films are connected by their year of release, 1956. I’ve been indulging in quite a few films from this particular year, and so I was able to find five films that are also related by small threads here and there (actors, themes, sequences, tones) and so that makes this a little more fun as well.
So to kick things off, last night I watched ‘Jubal’, a Western directed by Delmer Daves starring the trifecta of Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger.
First, I was excited for this. Despite the fact that I’m not really a devoted fan of the Western, Delmer Daves directed ‘3:10 to Yuma’ to following year (1957), and I found that to be a masterpiece of genre so I had high expectations for this. Couple that with the fact that I had recently seen and loved ‘Marty’ and consider Rod Steiger to have been one of the greatest actors of all time, I was pretty excited to see both Steiger and Borgnine work their magic in a Western.
For me, ‘Jubal’ is a film that works heavily in parts, and falls apart rather horribly in others. It is a film that is ‘half right’, as in the first half is a tragic bore and the last half is rather intense and kind of brilliant. I’m torn here, because I want to say that this is great based on the last impression, which sticks with you, but I cannot ignore the fact that the film’s first half nearly put me to sleep and had me wanting to bypass the whole thing. Honestly, if it weren’t for Steiger’s magnificent performance I probably would have.
The story behind ‘Jubal’ is ripe with promise. Jubal Troop is a man constantly running from something (although we never really uncover what it is that he is on the run from). On the outset of the film, Jubal is found lying beside the road, beat up and out of sorts, by Shep Horgan, the beloved rancher. Jubal instantly catches the eye of three important people. The first is obviously Shep, a happy-go-lucky man filled with spirit and a good eye for those he can trust. He trusts Jubal and the two become close friends. The second person that takes a particular interest in Jubal is Mae, Shep’s wife. Mae is unhappy in her marriage, unfulfilled is more like it, and looks for escape in the arms of other men. She is taken with Jubal. He is handsome and promises her some danger and the feeling of being alive that she has lost in her marriage to Shep and lonely life on the ranch. The third person, and most important, to cast his eye on Jubal is Pinky, Shep’s most prominent ‘right hand man’. Pinky is a sly and jealous person who has his heart set on Mae and his mind set on destroying Jubal’s reputation with Shep. As Pinky observes Mae’s attraction and advances towards Jubal, Pinky begins to device a plot that should get him everything he wants.
Structurally, this doesn’t work as well as it should. The first half, where Jubal is establishing himself in Shep’s life and that of the ranch itself, is rather straightforward and boring. In fact, the first thirty minutes or so drag on and feel like an hour. The subplot involving the religious group traveling in stagecoaches and parking on Shep’s land is a tad forced, and while they do serve as an important plot device in the end (more like props really) they don’t offer much to the themes of the story (despite attempting to) and so I find them really unnecessary and distracting. The love interest aspect of the story wasn’t needed either, and it took away from the real crust of the film, which revolved around Pinky’s jealousy and his diminishing qualities.
That is why the second half works more than the first, because it sets in motion Pinky’s scheme and really allows Rod Steiger to pounce all over his role. He unleashes the demons so-to-speak and becomes this unspeakable depiction of evil. The way he uses his eyes and his distinct vocal annunciations to evoke pure manipulation is chilling. You can see his mind working through the rest of his ‘moves’ and finding a way to get what he wants. When he finally sees his goal in his sights there is no containing him, and when he loses control and unleashes his rage it is not only shocking but completely progressive (his attacks on Mae are particularly unsettling for such early cinema).
I only wish that Ernest Borgnine was as effective as Steiger. Borgnine is just a giant oaf here, and is so obnoxious it is hard to understand why he was so beloved. He was supposed to be a friend to all and one that everyone loved (outside of Mae, who was distraught) but he was like that annoying guy that never leaves the group despite never being a real part of it. Glenn Ford and Valerie French are both in fine form, but Ford is once again overlooked thanks to a castmate (this time Steiger) who manages to do more with the material.
The finale has more of a predictable or clichéd vibe than I wanted it to have, but leading up to it was nicely worked. Despite being uneven, I can recommend this for a few things, not the least of which is Steiger’s performance. The base story itself and the way that it is handled is very strong. Sadly, the two halves don’t make a whole and the poor cinematography doesn’t help matters (it is a very ‘ugly’ film). The score is bouncy and full of life, and the dusty town is properly depicted, but this is really a film to see because of Steiger’s devilish turn and little else.
So, that is it for the first entry. Tonight I’ll be watching 1956’s ‘Ransom’. Yes, the 1996 Mel Gibson thriller is the remake of this original film. ‘Ransom’ finds it’s connection to ‘Jubal’ in their star; Glenn Ford. I’m not sure if you’ll have a chance to see ‘Ransom’ tonight, considering that there is no DVD release for the film and the only reason I’m able to see it is because it recently aired on TCM and I have it DVR’d. If you can see it, I hope you’ll chime in tomorrow. If not, I hope you’ll still peek in to see my thoughts and hear the next film up for discussion on Wednesday.