Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nevada Smith (1966)

Steve McQueen starred in this rambling movie set mostly in the West. Its central character goes by different names until almost the end, when he calls himself “Nevada Smith.” The film was a prequel, based on a character in Harold Robbins’ 1961 potboiler, The Carpetbaggers. That novel had been made into a film in 1964, the character of Nevada Smith played by Alan Ladd  as a Tom Mix-style cowboy actor.

While it’s always a pleasure to watch McQueen on screen, this story was an odd fit for him. Already in his 30s, he is supposed to be a rank teenager in the opening scenes. More of a stretch is accepting him as a blond-haired “half-breed,” whose mother was a Kiowa Indian.

Plot. The story of the film has often been told in westerns. A man (or young woman, as in the case of True Grit) revenges the death of a family member. In this film, McQueen’s parents are tortured and killed by three outlaws (Arthur Kennedy, Karl Malden, Martin Landau). Then in 2+ hours of screen time, he tracks them down one by one to kill them.

First he has to learn how to use a gun and the many survival skills a man needs to stay alive in the West. A traveling gunsmith (Brian Keith) reluctantly but generously teaches him what he needs to know.

McQueen, parents' cabin burning
Believing himself ready to pursue his quest, he finally leaves Keith and begins looking for the three outlaws. He first finds Landau, who’s making a living as a gambler. After denying that he’s ever killed anyone, Landau tries to make an escape. In a knife fight, the two are wounded, Landau fatally, and McQueen is nursed back to health by the Kiowa.

Next he follows Kennedy into a state prison somewhere in the swamps of the Mississippi Delta. There he befriends the man and gets him to attempt an escape with the help of a prisoner from a nearby women’s prison camp (Suzanne Pleshette). Kennedy gets his due as McQueen shoots him dead with a revolver that he’s taken from a guard. Pleshette expires from snakebite.

Back in the West, arriving in the gold fields of California, McQueen gets a job with the last of the three villains, Karl Malden, who plans to hold up a shipment of bullion. In the middle of the robbery, as the other men ride off in every direction with the loot, McQueen turns his gun on Malden and leaves him to die, while Malden begs to be finished off.

Brian Keith
Structure. The film uses the structure of a revenge plot to tell the story of a boy’s loss of innocence and growth into manhood. Unable to read and inexperienced at playing cards, drinking alcohol, and sex, McQueen’s young man gets some exposure to all these aspects of adulthood.

The screenplay also introduces him to religion when he is saved by a mission priest from being maliciously roughed up by some of Malden’s gang. The good father tries to persuade him to give up a life of violence. However, seeing a crucifix on the wall, McQueen observes that forgiving and forgetting didn’t work out so well for the man on the cross. He’ll stick with “an eye for an eye.”

Realism. McQueen does well with all this and is convincing in a role that demands a lot of him, while not giving him much more than a two-dimensional character. His “half-breed” parentage is used to make the villains more hateful, as they sneer at him and his mother. But his character is untouched by any ethnic or racial heritage. True to movie conventions of the time, white ancestry obliterates all traces of red.

Suzanne Pleshette
It’s worth noting that women are worked into the story somewhat awkwardly. A Kiowa girl shows up in what seems to be a fairly comfortable saloon and whorehouse. While Indian girls may have found their way into prostitution in the Old West, the prejudice against “squaws” makes her an unlikely candidate for the profession.

The seemingly truthful representation of brutal prison conditions in the Deep South challenges probability when women prisoners get to fraternize with the men. Suzanne Pleshette is lovely as one of them, sweetly mannered, not the hardened product of a criminal life, as you would expect. Her slow demise from snakebite lacks anything like realism as well.

Wrapping up. The film seems very much a product of its time. Given its length, the size of the cast, and the sprawling narrative, it wants to be enjoyed as a historical saga, not just a western. Shot partly in the California Sierras and Owens Valley, it fills the big screen with sweeping outdoor scenery. Alfred Newman’s rich and persistent score echoes the scale of the mountainous landscapes.

Source of Nevada Smith character
Director Henry Hathaway (1898-1985) got his start in Hollywood making westerns. His first was a 1932 adaptation of Zane Grey’s novel, The Heritage of the Desert (reviewed here a while ago). Over the years, he directed films in many genres, returning to the western for Rawhide (1951), Garden of Evil (1954), From Hell to Texas (1958), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), and True Grit (1969).

Screenwriter John Michael Hayes (1919-2008) had an enormously successful career as a writer for radio and the movies. After a Jeff Chandler western, War Arrow (1953), he wrote scripts for Alfred Hitchcock, including Rear Window (1954). Among later projects, all of them adaptations of novels or plays, were Peyton Place (1957), Butterfield 8 (1960), The Children’s Hour (1961), and The Carpetbaggers (1964).

Nevada Smith is currently available at netflix and at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more Overlooked Movies and TV, head on over to Todd Mason’s blog.

Source: imdb.com

Coming up: Thomas Eidson, St. Agnes Stand


  1. Two of my favorite actors. I remember it.

    1. Just about any two of the cast I'd consider favorites, too.

  2. I actually saw this one and liked it ok. I liked McQueen so was tolerant of whatever he was in.

  3. The Nevada Smith segment of THE CARPETBAGGERS may be the best thing Harold Robbins ever wrote (which isn't necessarily saying much, in spite of his gazillion-copy sales). Tight, tough, gritty --- it stuck with me long after the gratuitous sex peppered throughout the rest of the book, which was why I, as a near-terminally horny teeneager, read it in the first place. Alan Ladd, in the (terrible) movie version of the book --- even sick and bloated by alcohol and playing his final role --- somehow managed to convey the ruggedness of the Smith character (and he was blond, too, by the way) at an older age ... But for some reason I always found the Hathaway/McQueen film a little flat. All the story elements were there and it had a fine cast, yet there was an intangible something that didn't *quiet* work. It's watchable and even mildly entertaining but it just doesn't rise to the level it seems like it could or should have.

    1. I agree with you, Wayne. It's flat. Never quite gets up on its feet. I'll have to look for Robbins' version of the character.

  4. ... Make that "didn't *quite* work" ... I really am a guud spellar ...

  5. Replies
    1. I agree. There was too much talent wasted on the three villains.

  6. I too like this film but understand that it is flawed - still it's better than a lot of the drek about these days.

  7. It used to be that all movie stars had roles in westerns and many of them actually knew how to ride (don't know about these guys). Now it's rare as so few westerns are made anymore.

  8. I read THE CARPETBAGGERS a very long time ago, a period when I went through Harold Robbins-Irving Wallace-James Hadley Chase phase, but don't remember the character of Nevada Smith. One reason I know I haven't seen this film is because the only Steve McQueen western I have seen, I think, is THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. Thanks for the review, Ron.

    1. I'd recommend McQueen's TOM HORN. It was one of his very last films. He also had a good TV series at the start of his career, WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE.

  9. Does anyone know the name of the actress who played the part of Max Sand's (Steve) Indian mother who was killed at the beginning of the movie? Samabshier@hotmail.com

  10. According to one of the Nevada Smith goofs in the IMDB: "In a previous scene, Bowdre says he hasn't skinned an Indian since the war (Civil War) 15 years ago." Thus that previous scene must be between 1876 & 1880. After killing Bodre at Abeline, Texas, the injured Smith is taken to a Kiowa camp to recover over months or weeks. As a history lover I should point out that the Kiowa's final military defeat was in the Red River War of 1874-75 and they were confined to their reservation in The Indian Territory since then. Did Smith survive being dragged hundreds of miles to the Kiowa reservation when badly wounded? Did a small group of Kiowa camp near Abilene Texas for months without being escorted to the reservation by Texas Rangers or the army or maybe being attaacked and massacred by Texans?