The theme of revenge has always been one of the staples of the western genre and, despite a slightly bloated running time, Nevada Smith (1966) is a fairly standard example of this. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the movie is its focus on a mixed race protagonist. However, while this lends a different slant to the usual quest for vengeance, the casting dilutes it a little and it’s easy to forget the whole racial angle for extended periods, except when the characters on screen make explicit reference to it.
Max Sand (Steve McQueen) is the half-breed son of a white man and a Kiowa woman, and the story opens with him innocently directing three men (Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau) who claim acquaintance with his father to the family home. These men aren’t paying any friendly call though and Max realizes this sobering fact too late. By the time he makes his way back home the men have fled, but there’s a horrifying sight left behind for Max to find. In a vain attempt to extort money the father has been cut, burned and shot to death, while the mother has been skinned alive. Mercifully, none of this is shown on screen but the reactions of Max and his subsequent burning to the ground of his home and all that it contains still add up to a powerful scene. With his whole world literally reduced to ashes, he sets out to track down the torturers of his family and kill them. If the casting of McQueen as a half-breed is a bit of a stretch then it’s even less credible to see him as a callow youth with no real world experience. Still, that’s how we’re supposed to take it, and his green foolishness almost ends his quest before he’s even got properly started. It’s his chance encounter with a travelling arms dealer, Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), that turns things around for him. Cord takes the young man under his wing, teaching him the rudiments of gunfighting and giving him some basic education. From here on, the film is divided into three distinct sections, each focusing on how Max (he only adopts the Nevada Smith alias in the final segment) locates his man and goes about his reprisals. The first and third sequences work best, the former for its brevity and the latter for its tension. The middle of the movie (the part dealing with Arthur Kennedy’s comeuppance) is much more problematic though. The way it’s set up – Max having himself jailed to get close to his victim – strains believability in the first place. But the real problem is the way it goes on too long and virtually turns into a separate movie within the main narrative. It slows things down terminally and results in the entire production having a disjointed feel. Such is the draining effect of this sequence that the superior final part has some of its impact lessened by the time we get round to it.
Nevada Smith is a prequel to The Carpetbaggers, a movie I’ve never seen so I can’t comment on whether it holds up in terms of continuity. Henry Hathaway can usually be counted on to deliver tight, economical movies that rarely outstay their welcome. However, with a filmography as long and varied as his there will inevitably be some that turn out better than others. In this case, I think Hathaway suffered from the episodic nature of the script he had to work with. The narrative ends up bolted together rather than flowing seamlessly from one situation to another. As I already said, the mid section is where it stumbles and the impetus is lost. In fairness, this part does serve to illustrate the development and progression of McQueen’s character. The thing is it’s not actually a weak section on its own; the problem, for me at least, is that it doesn’t quite gel with either the tone or pace of what precedes and follows. Of course Hathaway is aided enormously by having Lucien Ballard shooting the picture for him, the outdoor scenes in particular being beautifully rendered. The miscasting of McQueen is especially noticeable when you consider his age – he was in his mid-thirties, and looked it, and was being asked to play the part of someone at least fifteen years younger. The only saving grace lay in the fact that McQueen had the ability to project a kind of childlike innocence when he wanted. While this cannot entirely paper over the incongruity, it does go some way towards compensating for a major weakness. Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau were a fine trio of villains, and there’s a good deal of satisfaction to be derived from seeing them get what’s coming to them. Malden easily has the best role and he does a good job of portraying a man descending into terrified paranoia as a result of the relentless pursuit by his faceless nemesis. The only female role of any substance was handed to Suzanne Pleshette, as the girl who falls for McQueen and aids him in his escape from the swamp ringed prison, and she manages to be both sexy and tragic.
Back when Paramount were still in the business of issuing catalogue titles on DVD it was rare to come across a poor transfer. Nevada Smith is no exception in that respect, the anamorphic scope image on the R1 disc being strong, detailed and colourful. It’s a totally barebones affair though with no extras whatsoever. So, to recap, we have a fairly standard western tale of revenge – and the ultimate futility of it all – that’s reasonably satisfying. Apart from the odd central casting, I feel the movie could have been improved a good deal by a bit of judicious editing to strip away some of the flab in the script. Still, the end product is entertaining enough and I’d give it a qualified recommendation.