The melodrama and the western exist as a sort of sibling pair which I will avoid gendering, because that would be a bit heteronormative and unnecessary, but, regardless, it is impossible to ignore the sort of relationship the two have cinematically and historically, one that is often overlooked due to the subtle nature of their shared methodologies. Of course, when it becomes noticeable it is often quite excellent, as is certainly the case with Johnny Guitar, but also holds true for my recent viewing of Delmer Daves' Jubal a film that is beautifully shot in technicolor, focuses on the very genre subject of cattle life and also happens to be a masterful bit of melodrama, at times on a level close to that of Douglas Sirk. I assumed based on the vague images I had seen upon the initial announce of its release via Criterion that it would be an all out action film, one more in line with the original 3:10 To Yuma another film by Daves, yet aside from perhaps a handful of gun firing scenes, this is easily the most dialogue heavy film I have engaged with thus far, and I certainly lend that to its decided reliance on the melodramatic tradition. Early on in my movement towards cinephilia I would have dismissed such a stylized and classicist composition, still blinded by the showiness of of Tarantino and Fincher film, which while excellent, do owe their very extravagance to the aforementioned elements of melodrama. I ramble about this to say that Jubal manages to be both a sleeper classic within terms of the western genre, as well as one of the melodramas that I am quite surprised is only now making it onto my docket, especially since I spent a couple weeks earlier this year purposefully seeking out the classics of melodrama. Jubal is a textbook classic that has a cult following and is only now making its reputation well-known. I am thrilled that it is getting a second wind via Criterion and while I know I am not the most read blog on the internet I hope that my adoration for its perfect structure will, in some small way, help to extend its voice to a couple more viewers, because in its classicist simplicity it manages to hold a wait equal to that of a Leone or Ford film with little effort whatsoever.
Jubal centers on the title character, played by Glenn Ford, a wandering cattle hand who has inexplicably found himself passed out in the land which belongs to rancher Shep Horgan (Ernest Borgnine) a likable and well meaning man who takes Jubal on as an employee without question. Appreciative of the opportunity, Jubal works diligently to pay off his debt and quickly earns the admiration of Shep who makes him a ranch hand, much to the frustration and anger of the lecherous Pinky (Rod Steiger) who immediately goes about trying to destroy Jubal for no other reason than he just hates his presence. While it is impossible to immediately find fault with Jubal, Pinky realizes that the new ranch hand, much like the other members of the crew, has taken a liking to Shep's wife Mae (Valerie French) who seems as equally interested in running away with the suave and stoic Jubal. Pinky is immediately aware of this development and uses it as a means to plant a seed within Shep's head as to Jubal being a person lacking in trust, despite Shep making it quite clear that he is fond of the man and his work ethic. Furthermore, it is revealed that Pinky and Mae have shared a previous relationship together adding a layer of jealousy to Pinky's seemingly inexplicable actions. Yet, it takes a heavy amount of arm pulling for Pinky to make Shep suspicious continually prodding at him until the paranoia seeps in and he rides in a fury of ungrounded jealousy back to his ranch thinking he might catch the two in the act and confront his cuckolding. While Jubal has already denied Mae's advances out of respect for Shep, not to mention the burgeoning of his own relationship with another woman, Mae betrays him by calling out his name when Shep enters the house, leading to what Shep assumes to be verification of their past relations. This leads to Shep going out in search of revenge upon Jubal finding him unarmed in a bar. Jubal hoping to avoid confrontation, tries to stand down, but when Shep fires multiple shots at him, he has no choice but to fire back and then take flight to avoid the death that a foolishly self-rightous Pinky wants to exact. Of course, Jubal is far more clever than Pinky and leads him on a winding chase before returning to the ranch, where he manages to get Mae to admit to the misunderstandings and problems, although Pinky violently attacks her resulting in her death moments later, however, with the information cleared up in is Pinky who goes on trial and Jubal is allowed to leave with a degree of his dignity intact. Unfortunately, he is left to continue wandering the world, yet this time he has a companion to make the journey far less dreary.
While I wanted to avoid gendering either genre, I can say that in terms of Classic Hollywood rhetoric, one often associates the western with masculinity, as has been well established this month on the blog, and I have certainly written about "women's films" in the past, in which melodrama was deemed a filmic tradition with a decided push towards the femininity. What makes Jubal so exceptional is that it manages to pull these assumed gender traditions within each and mash them forcefully together, instead becoming a film about ethical decisions as opposed to one of gendered presumptions. In some of the more traditional set-ups men would be unquestionably rational and concerned with justice, while women would be inclined to fits of "hysteria" and illogical behavior. In this context, viewers are still allowed these images, but they are no longer specifically gendered, sure Mae acts a bit irrationally in her feelings to Jubal, but it is made clear that she is frustrated by her own being seen, literally, as cattle to the well-meaning but inextricably misogynist Shep. Furthermore, Shep's own moral turpitude is not a result of anything aside from his inherently bad nature, detracting it from the melodramatic assumptions that he is somehow a scorned man, if anything, he is a person perpetually engaged in the scorning of others. The heightened emotional scenes in this film do not film viewers minds with a hope and longing that two characters who are "destined" to be together will be afforded the opportunity, even if fleeting. Jubal is not An Affair to Remember, Brief Encounters or even All That Heaven Allows, because it is also a western, which means that loss and failed desire very much factor in, which could be blamed on the lack of law in the western setting, almost entirely personified through Pinky, but it could also reflect upon Jubal's own entrenched sense of justice and respect which is one of the tropes this film seems most comfortable with relying upon, almost to the point of banging it upon viewers' heads. Again, this is a melodrama as well as a western so repetition and overstatement are merely customary. While these two genres make for a beautiful hybrid, Daves does not stop there and even goes into a bit of expressionist zeal with Jubal's recounting of a traumatic childhood experience that has a level of Freudian implications that have hardly been shown thus far in my marathon.
Key Scene: I mean as evil as a character as Pinky proves to be, he is played wonderfully by Rod Steiger and when he engages in a scene he manages to outshine all those involved by miles.
This was just released by Criterion and while I watched it On Demand, the aspect ratio was off, therefore I would suggest the 4K bluray that is now available, I can only imagine how wonderfully it pops off the screen.