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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Jubal (1956)



Dir: Delmer Daves - Cast: Glenn Ford (Jubal), Ernest Borgnine (Shep Horgan), Rod Steiger (Pinky), Valerie French (Mae Horgan), Charles Bronson, Felicia Farr, Jack Elam

Although officially based on a novel by Paul Wellman, Jubal is widely regarded as an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello, with Ernest Borgnine as Othello, Glenn Ford as Cassio and Rod Steiger as Iago. The script follows the play by and large but some characters have been merged and Steiger's Pinky (Iago's counterpart in the movie) has been given different motivations for his subversive activities.

Ford is Jubal (1), a man on the run (not for the law but for himself) who's given shelter on Shep Horgan's ranch. Horgan's right hand, Pinky, takes an immediate disliking to Jubal, who quickly becomes Shep's confidant. When Jubal is named forehand by Horgan, Pinky feels passed over and his envy grows when he discovers that Mrs. Horgan is openly flirting with Jubal. Mae Morgan is much younger than her husband and has never loved him; she married him on impulse because he promised her a palace (and gave her a ranch instead). Pinky has always lived under the idea that he could win Mrs. Horgan's heart, and is determined to destroy the man who has ruined his chances ...

Jubal was popular among critics, who praised is for its intelligent scripting and emotional depth, but to large audiences director Delmer Daves is better known for movies like the pro-Indian Broken Arrow  (1950) or the psychological drama 3:10 to Yuma (1957). Like most Shakespeare adaptations Jubal is a bit too talkative and explicatory, notably in relation to Ford's character, but even in western form it's easily sensed how strong the story material is. There's  hardly any action but suspense is mounting and due to the changes made to the storyline even those who know their Shakespeare will often wonder what's going to happen next. The Wyoming landscape is lush and green, and forms a perfect background for this stirring drama (or melodrama).



As said, some changes were made to Shakespeare's original storyline. This is understandable, some of  Shakespeare's plot devices are easily misunderstood when transferred to another period and place. The complex plot about trust, jealousy, betrayal and resentment has been turned into a romantic drama, more in keeping with expectations of fifties' audiences. The most important mutation is the omittance of the Roderigo character, in the play the person who is in love with Desdemona (and is manipulated by Iago). Roderigo was merged with Iago, who is now both Othello's (that is Shep's) frustrated right hand and Desdemona's (Mrs. Morgan's) frustrated lover. 

Thanks to this mutation the story may seem more neatly arranged (too many characters often hurt a script) but it has some side-effects which harm the Iago/Pinky character, played by Rod Steiger. In spite of the title, Othello is very much centered around Iago, who has more lines than the titular character. He's no doubt one of the most sinister villains in world literature, a manipulator and conspirator, vile but clever, skillful in deceiving others, almost charming in his persistent wickedness. This shrewd person is far removed from Steiger's loud-voiced, sexually obsessed Pinky, who's simply irritating and pathetic.


Like some have mentioned (2), Ford moves a little like James Dean in some scenes - shifting shyly away from people, smiling uncomfortably when making a revelation - apparently because his character was supposed to be a lot younger, and irresistible to women. Ford is not the greatest Don Juan in film history, but he's very good in these ambiguous roles of the stranger with a past, an intruder creating both uneasiness and expectations. Borgnine still seems in his Marty mood, copying the vivid portrayal of a warm-hearted but unattractive man that had brought him an Oscar the year before (3). Some of the supporting actors are very strong too, notably Charles Bronson as a drifter who befriends Ford and joins him as a cowpoke on Borgnine's ranch. Jack Elam is deliciously sinister as one of Steiger's dubious friends.

Jubal seems to have all one could ask for in a fifties western drama: great actors, great scenery, emotions flaring up ... even the action scenes, sparse and brief, are well-staged and exciting, and yet for decades it has been an almost completely forgotten movie. However, a few recent DVD and Blu-ray releases seem to have garnered some well-deserved attention for it. 


Notes:
* (1) The name Jubal appears in the Hebrew Bible. He's a descendant of Cain and a brother of Jabal. There seems to be no symbolic connection to Ford's character.
Genesis 4,21:
His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.
* (3) Ironically, Steiger had also played the role of Marty, in the original teleplay by Paddy Chayefski, aired in 1953. The teleplay was adapted into a feature length movie in 1955. Chayefski also scripted the movie, but Borgnine took over the role from Steiger. His performance was widely praised, but Chayefsky himself seemed to have preferred Steiger in the part. Maybe Delmer Daves reckoned the rivalry between the Marty 1 & Marty 2 would help his movie. 


1 comment:

  1. Have been meaning to watch this one. I'm a Glenn Ford fan.

    ReplyDelete