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Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma, two Glenn Ford westerns just released on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, didn't kick up much dust when they were released, mostly because westerns weren't much to get excited about then. The first was made in 1956, a year that 83 Hollywood westerns were released, roughly 31 per cent of the year's total studio releases. 3:10 to Yuma came out in 1957, when 70 of the year's 300 studio features were westerns, a drop to only 23 per cent.

It was a time when the most popular and prolific of all American movie genres was commencing its slow fade from the big screen to the small, but it was not going gently. As both these films – directed by the gifted but under-appreciated Delmer Daves, who made three movies with the Quebec-born Ford – generously demonstrate, by the time of its twilight, the western had attained levels of sophistication, nuance and expressiveness that made it America's most penetrating form of self-analysis. In its apparent simplicity lay infinite variety.

Watching these two movies back to back reveals just how open the genre's range really was: Although made by and starring the same two men, these movies are strikingly different. Jubal is a wide-open Technicolor spectacular that unfolds against a stunning Northwestern mountain backdrop, and tells a tale of an innocent but damaged man (Ford) who is persecuted by society for something he did not do. 3:10 to Yuma is a tightly composed black-and-white chamber piece that focuses on a cruel psychological showdown between two characters – Ford's calmly calculating, handcuffed stage robber and Van Heflin's reluctantly enlisted armed guard – who spend much of the movie staring at each other across a room.

As these movies also testify, the fifties Hollywood western was, by dint of sheer numbers, a repository of extraordinary talent: Some of Hollywood's best writers, directors and actors all worked extensively far out on the fictional frontiers, and at a time when a genre that had long been dismissed as pure kiddie kitsch had matured into a formidably complex, frank and adult popular genre. Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma – based on an early Elmore Leonard story – are classic studies in the West as place where character is tested under extreme pressure and civilization only a frayed thread from chaos.

The West was Glenn Ford's favourite fictional playground. As Peter Ford reveals in a supplementary interview, his father never enjoyed making movies as much as he did when he played a cowboy, and he never felt more relaxed as a performer. (He also tells us that Ford literally was the fastest gun in the Hollywood West, a guy who could draw and shoot in 0.4 seconds.) Like many of his cowboy-star cohorts of the day, Ford – the top box-office draw of 1958 – fit so snugly into the western because he was a man who conveyed outward calm and inner turbulence, the better to radiate the kind of imminent violence and ferocity the western held to its leathery vest like a deck of cards. In Jubal, he's a man with a past who literally rolls into the movie down the side of a rocky slope, stirring up not only dust but considerable passion and danger on the cattle ranch run by an Othello-like Ernest Borgnine. He's a catalyst for the release of otherwise suppressed forces of darkness, the man from the wilderness who brings out the animal that society thinks it has tamed.

But if he's generally decent yet fundamentally misunderstood in Jubal, in 3:10 to Yuma his mission is insidiously and unambiguously subversive: He's out to mess with decent people and their pretensions of law and order, to blow the thin layer of civilization off the unforgiving Arizona desert floor. And so, while Jubal unfolds in lavish Technicolor and Cinemascope against distant mountain peaks, 3:10 transpires largely indoors and in deeply shadowed black and white, its palpitating dramatic heart an extended verbal showdown between two men – the purring prisoner Ford and his perspiring keeper Van Heflin – in a hotel room with a ticking clock.

There are many factors which variously contributed to the flourishing richness of the fifties Hollywood western: returning war vets, the Red scare, suburban migration, psychoanalysis, the Bomb, anamorphic screen dimensions, conformist anxiety, a generation of kiddie-western-serial kids grown up. But in these two back-to-back Ford oaters, one can see just how wide and open that range really was: as deep as space and dark as the soul itself.