Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A sprawling, slow-paced Western revenge tale, Nevada Smith features the always-interesting
Steve McQueen in the standard role of the kid who has to grow up to Kill. The script and
direction don't strain the excellent supporting cast, and in the end the star of the film is
its cameraman, Lucien Ballard.
When his parents are tortured and murdered by three greedy criminals, half-Kiowa
teenager Max Sand (Steve McQueen) goes on an odyssey of revenge. With help from wandering gun
salesman Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), he arms himself and tracks down the three killers, letting
neither love nor promises stand in his way. At some point, he renames himself Nevada Smith.
Apparently when Harold Robbins sold his
The Carpetbaggers to Joseph E.
got the idea to spin off a prequel to that thinly-disguised tale of Howard Hughes. Hanging around
with George Peppard in that movie is an older, wiser Westerner played by Alan Ladd. Nevada
Smith is that character's backstory, a tossed-off tale of cold-blooded revenge that becomes
Western backed with all the resources Hollywood can offer. It appears to have been a 3-way deal
between Paramount, Levine's Embassy pictures, and Steve McQueen's personal Solar Productions.
Steve McQueen is again supposed to be a kid, and his acting is fine even if his face already has
deep creases. He looked too old to be a teenager 8 years earlier in his screen debut in The Blob.
He carries the picture well - he's one of those actors who can hold our attention just by standing
onscreen. But even his persona can't overcome the feeling that the show is overlong and under-scripted.
Brian Keith is fine in his few scenes as the clichéd tutor figure common to coming-of-age
Westerns. As a character, he doesn't line up with his counterpart Leif Erickson in
The Carpetbaggers. The two pictures might as well be disconnected, as this is a straight-up
Martin Landau, Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden play the three dastardly villains. For McQueen to
expend two hours hunting them down, their crime has to be a nasty one, and Nevada Smith
pulls out all the stops by having them skin McQueen's parents alive. Only the beginning of it is
shown, but it has a very off-putting feeling of atrocity about it - surely someone would be dead
fairly soon into the process (I really don't want to know more about it) and the effect is that
all subtlety goes out of the film. The three are targeted as Evil; in movie terms, McQueen is
absolutely justified in slaughtering them, which makes the moralizing influences he encounters (Janet
Margolin, Raf Vallone) a waste of screen time. There's not much to debate. The unnecessary
slaughter is a common Western fallback to bolster a weak story, as with the opening of
Tombstone. The Bravados
had visited the same territory six years before; it teaches a lesson about vigilantism,
when revenger Gregory Peck discovers that he's been tracking and murdering the wrong men.
Nevada Smith doesn't have much to say about its own theme. McQueen develops into
the roughest hombre in the West (by learning how to trick-shoot bottles thrown in the air, how else),
ignores the pleas of a kindly priest, and abandons the two women who saved his life. Then, after shooting
half a dozen holes into his last victim, he decides that killing the creep is beneath him, and rides
away. A cynical fadeout follows, without editorial comment, but since the victim is bleeding
to death in agony without a source of help, just how the &%#@ does McQueen figure he's
sparing him anything? Nevada Smith looks great, but it's a bit on the empty side.
Director Henry Hathaway directs with a steady hand but not a great deal of excitement. Although
the camera is never in a bad spot, but there's nothing particularly expressive in its use. Early on
there's an angle taken so blatantly from The Searchers that it seems the work of someone
without anything of his own to say. The real star of the show is ace cameraman Lucien Ballard,
who gives the film a glorious Big Sky look without letting it turn into a travelog. The familiar
Inyo Park exteriors are direct and handsome, but nicely understated. The long section set in the
Louisiana swamp prison is also very attractively shot.
The prisoners there are allowed conjugal visits with the 'Cajun girls' who work as virtual slaves in
the nearby rice fields, allowing Nevada Smith to match its edgy violence with some
MPAA-stretching sexual situations. Even though nothing's shown beyond holding hands and kissing,
for 1966, it's pretty strong stuff.
Howard da Silva, Pat Hingle and Ted de Corsia get nice bits, and Janet Margolin (Take the Money
and Run) isn't embarassed by her turn as a Kiowa maiden-turned 'dance hall girl'. Suzanne
Pleshette's brief role as a Cajun looker named Pilar doesn't get a chance to develop, but she's
effective as well. Joanna Cook Moore has one memorable scene as Martin Landau's widow. A
look at the IMDB shows that, besides being Tatum O'Neal's mother, she played in Countdown,
Son of Flubber, and as the daughter of the murdered tycoon Linnaker in Touch of Evil.
Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones also appear in one scene.
Paramount's DVD of Nevada Smith is a plain-wrap but handsome presentation. The enhanced
transfer looks colorful and sharp, when spread across a big monitor, and the sound is exceptionally
clear. There are no extras, not even a trailer. The package copy doesn't link this Western
with The Carpetbaggers, so the only reference to that is in the credit block.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Nevada Smith rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 26, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson