Sunday 12 September 2021

Movie Review: Nevada Smith (1966)

An epic western, Nevada Smith is a grand tale of revenge and coming-of-age.

In the 1890s, outlaws Fitch (Karl Malden), Coe (Martin Landau), and Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy) murder the parents of Max Sand (Steve McQueen), a half-breed young man. Despite no education and no experience in killing, Max vows revenge and sets off to find the killers. He receives gun training from traveling gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), then Kiowa woman Neesa (Janet Margolin) helps him identify Coe, a professional gambler and expert knifeman.

Max then locates Bowdre incarcerated in Louisiana, and stages a robbery to join him in a brutal prison located deep in the swamp lands. Max befriends Bowdre and plots an escape, using local woman Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) to provide them with a boat. Max's final challenge is to find Fitch, now the leader of a large outlaw gang. He adopts the name Nevada Smith to mask his growing reputation and gain Fitch's trust.

Directed by Henry Hathaway and written by John Michael Hayes, Nevada Smith is inspired by a character in Harold Robbins' 1961 book The Carpetbaggers. This is a richly textured western with a story of personal growth unfolding over multiple chapters. Visually beautiful, the engrossing story of revenge fuelled by blind fury easily sustains 131 minutes of screen time.

Steve McQueen at 35 years old does struggle to convey a young Max Sand in the early scenes, and often appears more goofy than naive. As the narrative progresses, Hathaway could have helped by sharpening the definition of the passing years. Regardless, McQueen improves towards the latter segments, and his cool persona is fully meshed with his character for the final confrontation with Fitch.

Along the way, the Louisiana prison sequence is almost a film within a film and introduces a unique setting to the western milieu. Max's long detour to a brutal prison camp and the dangerous surrounding swamps carries a singular and memorable intensity.

At the metaphysical level, Max starts out as an empty vessel knowing only his family then pure evil and hatred. His arc introduces him to a good man in Jonas Cord, two good women from each side of his heritage in Neesa and Pilar, the meaning of a nurturing community with the Kiowa tribe, and finally God, through an encounter with Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone). By the time Max is ready to close the chapter of his parents' death, he is mature, educated and much wiser to the world and his potential within it.

Karl Malden, Martin Landau, Arthur Kennedy, Brian Keith and Vallone offer robust support without stealing any scenes. Suzanne Pleshette does leave a haunting impression, her Pilar a prisoner without a crime sacrificing everything for a man while still oblivious to his potential for exploitativeness. Nevada Smith searches for a violent brand justice, but stumbles upon the compassion and humanity required for a different future.

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  1. Barry W. Saunders7 November 2022 at 15:57

    This is the best review of this film I've ever read. I saw it when it came out in 1966 and thought it great. The scene where Max's parents are tortured caused nightmares in a 9 year old.
    The ONLY thing wrong with the movie - and something that only struck me years later - is that McQueen was a bit too old to play that role.

    1. Thank you for the comment. Nevada Smith is an underrated western, epic in scope and high-quality in execution.

  2. “Nevada Smith” was one of my all-time favorite westerns. Directed by Henry Hathaway. The great Alfred Newman scored the picture. Every time I watch it, the music just gets better and better. I was only 12 when I saw it, but it has stuck with me throughout my adult years. McQueen was too old for the roll, but he still did a wonderful job of acting. My favorite character was Brian Keith, who was always excellent in any part he played. Teaching young Max to play poker, explaining the importance of becoming as bad as the ones he hunted. How right he was.
    My hope someday is that the movie will be available on Blu-ray. Would love to watch any commentary from whomever is still alive, and worked on the picture. A true, western classic!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Yes, this is a remarkably underrated western. Other than McQueen being too old for the early scenes, everything else works perfectly.


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