Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): Jubal 5/5 / 3:10 to Yuma 4.5/5
Like jazz, the Western is one of the few art forms America can proudly claim as her own. Also like jazz, the Western has deep roots in a broader tradition; its lineage can be traced back to the Greek epics, to biblical narratives, to folk legends of heroes battling demons – internal and external, literal and figurative. There’s a deceptive economy in the way Westerns are told: good guys versus bad guys, man’s futile encroachment on the barren landscape of time and nature, the barely noticeable speck of a cowboy on his horse swallowed up by the vastness of the surroundings.
Obviously, the Western was a staple for a large period of American cinema’s existence; it was as much an axiom on the marquee as superhero films are now. However, the Western’s low-budget, formulaic nature was perfectly suited for television and postwar/1950s homogenization (coupled with New Hollywood iconoclasm) relegated the Western’s white hat/black hat paradigm to the idiot box.
Plenty of Hollywood Westerns have been made since the advent of TV, enough so that there are perennial think pieces on “the return of the Western.” Dances With Wolves was supposed to revitalize the genre, then Unforgiven. The latter seemed to recast the Western almost exclusively as a revenge fantasy, a trend that spawned the likes of Tombstone and reached its boring zenith with Django Unchained.
However, watching a double feature of Delmer Daves westerns – 1956’s Jubal and 1957’s 3:10 To Yuma (out recently in beautifully restored Bluray editions from the Criterion Collection) – I can’t help but wonder if the Western is, like the silent picture, an art form that will never again exist in its authentic state. The great practitioners of the Western – John Ford, Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Henry Hathaway, etc. – worked with one foot firmly in a pre-modern time before suburban sprawl, when America was still an unsettled, elliptical idea. The restless spirit of the West had not quite yet ascended into the ether.
Both Daves films are high watermarks for the art form, for Daves, and for actor Glenn Ford. Jubal – the lesser known of the pair – is a slow burn character study of the eponymous mystery man (played close to the chest by Ford). The film opens with Jubal Troop literally stumbling downhill out of nowhere. A group of ranch hands discover his “half froze” body and bring him back to their boss, Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine at his most Borgninian --- that hearty, tinkly giggle-bellow of his works overtime here).
After being revived by a warm mug of coffee (with “a slug in it”, naturally), Jubal is fiercely interrogated by Shep’s foreman, “Pinky” (Rod Steiger), who’s already threatened by the laconic stranger and crawling with suspicions (“he’s one of dem lousy sheep herders”). Shep, meanwhile, takes an immediate shine to Jubal and hires him on despite Jubal’s desire to keep moving.
Though Pinky’s jealousy is enough to make trouble for Jubal, it is Shep’s wife, May (a sultry Valerie French) that will prove Jubal biggest challenge. May is Shep’s prized possession (“I’m livestock,” she wearily tells Jubal) but has an overwhelming itch to cuckold the poor, doomed chucklehead. Before you can say “Potiphar’s wife”, Shep makes Jubal his foreman and May is gunning for Jubal’s boots under her bed.
Jubal is a melodrama set against the unforgiving backdrop of the west. There are cougars to contend with (in and out of doors) and the constant threat of one’s property being encroached upon – whether it’s a wagon train of pacifists decamping on Shep’s ranch or May’s attempts on Jubal’s virtue.
The real meat of the film is in the performances (in addition to the aforementioned, the cast is rounded out by Jack Elam and Charles Bronson). Valerie French’s May is a confused, resentful kid brimming with frustrated womanhood and unkempt sexuality. Steiger gives one of his greatest performances (though “great Steiger performance” is a bit redundant). As characterized by Steiger, Pinky is a vaguely effete beta male with a dirty south whiskey drawl. His naked ambition is matched only by his venal mediocrity.
Ford is instantly magnetic as Jubal, balancing a mysterious stoicism with an earnest vulnerability. When Jubal finally admits the dark secret that sparked his wanderings, it’s a revelatory moment; Ford finds the wounded, incredulous child buried in Jubal’s man without a past.
Ford delivers another fine performance in 3:10 To Yuma, this time wearing the black hat as the coolly vicious Ben Wade. Ben Wade and Jubal Troop are different tributaries from the same dusty arroyo; Wade is Jubal gone bad.
The Die Hard-simple plot to Yuma will be familiar to anyone who saw James Mangold’s 2010 remake: Ben Wade is arrested for murder and stagecoach robbery. He needs to be transported by a sheriff’s posse to the titular train before the posse is intercepted by Wade’s extremely loyal (and blood-thirsty) gang.
Unlike Jubal, all the stakes are introduced up front. Dan Evans (a harried Van Heflin) reluctantly joins the posse so that he can use the reward money to save his family farm. Meanwhile, Wade’s sidekick (Richard Jaeckel) is a twisted Boy Scout, hell-bent on murdering everyone he needs to in order to liberate Wade.
Most of Yuma is the psychological interplay between Evans and Wade (in fact, about a third of the film is limited to a hotel room where the two men are holed up while waiting for the train). Wade appeals to Evans’ common sense, promising greater wealth if only Evans will release Wade. Initially, Heflin paints Evans as a man beset with so much worry, he almost seems like the kind of guy who’d sell his honor for a few dollars; we’re not sure which way he’ll turn.
It’s the expertly paced slow burn of the last third that sets Yuma above many of its kin. Having already seen the film (and the remake), I knew the outcome but that didn’t stop me from getting knotted up as the two men stepped out of their confinement and made a break for the train. It’s a concentrated suspense set piece worthy of Hitchcock.
Both of these films are seemingly effortless masterpieces, deserving their place not only in the pantheon of Westerns, but in the hallowed halls of American film.
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