Nevada Smith

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Steve McQueen, Brian Keith, Karl Malden, Suzanne Pleshette, Arthur Kennedy, Martin Landau, Janet Margolin, Pat Hingle, Howard De Silva, Raf Vallone.

The title character is the creation of Harold Robbins for his sleazebag novel The Carpetbaggers. When producer Joseph E. Levine bought the screen rights, he did so looking to squeeze enough pulp out the material to fill two separate features. It was one of the first, perhaps the first, times a novel was “twinned” for the screen. The Carpetbaggers (1964) would be followed in 1966 by a prequel, Nevada Smith, starring Steve McQueen in a role originated by Alan Ladd. When first we met, Nevada was riding out the tail end of a career as a cowboy superstar working for Jonas Cord Jr. (George Peppard), a picture-making aviation pioneer based on Howard Hughes. Not only is Nevada the only man that Cord trusts, he’s the only one allowed to address Jonas II as Junior. Moviegoers were humbled by Nevada’s squeaky clean persona. Junior looks at him as a father figure until Nevada’s sordid past as revenge-killer Max Sand is unearthed by one of paranoiac Cord’s private eyes and detailed in a brief on-screen exchange between Junior and the aging cowpoke.

Legend has it Nevada Smith (nee: Max Sand) was born a “half-breed”: cowboy father, Indian mother. Orphaned at a young age, he hunted and gunned down the trio of desperados — Tom Fitch (Karl Malden), Jesse Coe (Martin Landau) and Bill Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy) — who slaughtered his parents in their quest for gold. Borrowing a page or three from The Searchers (right down to the silhouetted door frame) 16-year-old Max Sand, played unconvincingly by 35-year-old Steve McQueen, spent years hunting the killers and hardening his soul. (A prequel starring Ladd was up for discussion, until the actor’s premature passing at age 50 put an “Amen” on the project.) John Ford had the good sense to keep the carnage out of frame. With exploitation-meister Joe Levine leading the box office charge, subtlety was not a viable option when it came to carving Mother Sand’s back as if she were a Thanksgiving turkey.

The below-the-line talent is a veritable compendium of Western picture-makers. Director Henry Hathway began his career on ‘B’ westerns. By the time of Nevada Smith’s release he had worked in every conceivable outdoor location, from Lone Pine to Monument Valley, and there wasn’t an angle that he hadn’t committed to memory. The exhausting shoot covered 42 locations. It was a task the director wasn’t up to. Fortunately, with another proficient western hand, cinematographer Lucien Ballard, calling the shots, there’s no dearth of scenic splendor. The rousing soundtrack comes courtesy of prolific composer Alfred Newman, an old hand at Western scores (Jesse James, Broken Arrow, Way of a Gaucho). John Michael Hayes cut his teeth writing scripts for Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann before emerging as the consummate auteur’s scripter du jour, signing four of Hitchcock’s golden period Technicolor jewels for Paramount: Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry and the Master’s improvement on The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the ’60s, his career took a turn for the worse with a string of sleazy potboilers for Paramount of which The Carpetbaggers is the finest. I cannot urge you enough to watch it before taking a bit out of Nevada Smith.

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What tie binds the two films? If you’re expecting a clear-cut explanation as to how Nevada made the leap from the old west to the new Hollywood you’ll have to wait for the threequel. Brian Keith steals the show as Jonas Cord Sr., the character played by Leif Erickson in The Carpetbaggers. The interplay between wise old Jonas and his young protege form by far the most compelling moments the film has to offer. Jonas sells guns but at first refuses to teach Nevada how to shoot, warning that he could turn out to be as big an animal as the ones he’s hunting. Cord pumps the kid full of reason. Fledgling shooter Nevada argues that he can kill a rabbit at 80 yards, but as Keith points out, rabbits don’t carry guns. The most important bit of advice Keith imparts comes after he shoots a gun from behind his back that makes Nevada flinch. The moral of the story? Never trust anyone, even a friend. And speaking of great anomalies and curiosities of westerns, how is it that a gunslinger can fire a pistol and instantly tuck the red hot firearm in the waist of his pants. Wouldn’t it burn?

Romance is fleeting. Janet Margolin appears as a Native American dancehall girl (read: prostitute) that leaves virginal Nevada positively twitterpated. Suzanne Pleshette is Hooker #2, a prisoner working the rice paddies who meets Nevada as a participant in the Warden’s personal R&R inducing joy division. The film’s biggest drawback is its star. Blond, blue-eyed McQueen playing a Native American was a masterstroke of miscasting. First off, there is nothing in his performance that audiences hadn’t seen already, and for free, on his weekly small screen oater, Wanted: Dead or Alive. Hollywood wizardry can cheat almost anything but the magic stops when it comes to de-aging. Slap a little shinola on McQueen’s temples and we’ll believe the character he’s playing is well beyond his years. Why they didn’t simply hire a younger performer to play the younger Nevada is a testament to the actor’s runaway ego. McQueen is a thinking man’s actor and by that I mean you can always see him thinking while he’s acting. No one short of Milton Berle comes close to McQueen’s distracting habit of upstaging everyone else in the frame.

Bonus features include a new commentary track with screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner, producer Mark Jordan Legan and historian Henry Parke, as well as trailers and TV spots.

Bright Victory

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Arthur Kennedy, Peggy Dow, Julie Adams, James Edwards, Jim Backus, Richard Egan, Murray Hamilton, Larry Keating, Rock Hudson.

While sweeping for mines during the North African Campaign of 1943, a German sniper’s bullet pierced Sergeant Larry Nevins’ (Arthur Kennedy) steel helmet, destroying his optic nerve and causing permanent blindness. One year after Marlon Brando made his screen debut as a paralyzed vet in Fred Zinneman’s The Men, Universal-International swapped out one disability for another in Bright Victory, a grueling tale of rehabilitation that’s as uplifting as it is unsentimental. The bold, adult manner in which it is imparted brings an air of frank immediacy that remains potent to this day. The Hays Office frowned upon suicide as a plot device, but war had a way of softening the censor board’s thinking. An enlisted man walks past the bathroom just in time to stop Nevins from taking a razor to his wrist. Even Will Hays couldn’t deny a fraught soldier their right to contemplate taking their life as an alternative to sightlessness, particularly when it advanced the plot.

Remember the fallacious manner in which the “Dream Factory” dealt with the Depression? Chorines dressed as coinage attempted to mollify impoverished audiences by singing and tapping their way through “We’re in the Money.” There was a brief period following World War II where Hollywood appeared poised to follow a similar line of tranquilizing illusion, but audiences would have none of it. The war, and the news of Hitler’s inferno that came with it, brought audiences closer in touch with a darker side of reality, a shade heretofore hidden from view due in large part to the governing pedagogues at the PCA.

America’s sudden thirst for authenticity demanded a change in tone as well as locale. More and more, casts and crews left the relative comfort of the soundstage in favor of filming in more precarious actual locales. Whenever possible, director Mark Robson chose to film in practical locations and existing light. (Bright Victory was shot in and around Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.) That’s where matchless lensman William Daniels came in handy. He began his long and illustrious career riding focus for punctilious silent screen autocrat, Eric von Strohiem (Greed, The Merry Widow). Before the thirties rang out, MGM’s prize star-shooter had earned a reputation throughout Tinsel Town as, “Garbo’s favorite cinematographer.” The years prior to Bright Victory found Daniels leading the charge towards realism: Brute Force, The Naked City and Deported burst through studio gates, his deep focus lens aimed on a collision course with the struggles of the modern world. 

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From initial waves of hopelessness to breaking the news of his blindness to loved ones and learning how to navigate his cane as a “bumper,” not a “feeler,” screenwriter Robert Buckner, working from a novel by Bayard Kendrick, guides us through every intricate step of Nevin’s renewal. (The uninterrupted two-block trek through the grounds that deposits us at Nevins’ “obstacle perception” test was a standout.) As confidence grew, the sergeant soon became a vital part of the hospital’s ebb and flow. That includes venturing from the relatively safe confines and hopping the bus to downtown Phoenixville. It’s here that he meets the film’s main love interest, Judy Green (Peggy Dow). Dow had previously starred opposite James Stewart in Harvey. After a brief, but versatile three-year stint under contract to Universal-International, she quit the business to raise a family.

Upon his return home, the soldier was greeted with patronization and flat-out rejection. Locals bow and scrape to meet Nevins’ every need, but it soon becomes clear that he is not the only one having difficulty accepting his homecoming. His future in-laws are none too pleased at the thought of having their daughter marry a man who in their dim-sighted estimation will never be able to make his way through life without needing a shoulder to lean on. This was the film that made Arthur Kennedy a star. Whether cast as a western villain, an everyman doing his best to prop the weight of the world on his back, or oiling his way through Some Came Running as Sinatra’s greasy brother, Kennedy raised the bar for American character actors.

The movies generally painted a character with a handicap — particularly one incurred while serving their country — in shades of spotless angelic, but not so Nevins. He has a fiancée back home, Chris Paterson (Julie Adams), but that didn’t stop him from coming on hot and heavy to Judy. Their first dance together and already he’s putting on the moves, tightening his grip as would a prehensile osteopath, before praising her figure. A blind racist sees no color and Nevins’ intolerant side is on display as early as the flight to Valley Forge. No sooner did Nevins learn that the closest his plane-mate Joe Morgan (James Edwards) came to a country club was through the “colored only” servant’s entrance, than he cuts the conversation short, requesting to speak with a nurse. At the hospital, the two become fast friends until the day Nevins lets slip that he never knew they “let n*****s in the ward” to which Joe replies, “I’ve been here nearly seven months.” Nevins didn’t say “Negro” or “colored” but the full-blown epithet behind the asterisks. To this day it remains shocking to hear a character from the Golden Age, a war hero we’ve been encouraged to stand firmly behind no less, utter the slur.

According to Ellen Scott’s Regulating “N*****”: Racial Offense, African American Activists, and the MPPDA, (1928–1961), a provision to the PCA’s list of “don’t and be carefuls” stated that “willful offense to any nation, race, or creed … ended up on the cutting-room floor.” Scott concluded, “The PCA eventually passed the film with the blind veteran’s dramatically framed epithet intact. And (Code overlord Joseph) Breen said nothing about ‘darky’ in the song ‘Take Me Back to Old Virginny’ on the soundtrack.” It’s one thing had Nevins’ racist outburst been cut short with an apology and a fade out, never to be mentioned again. But the script won’t settle for anything less than having Nevins confront his demons. Hate begins at home and listening to his mother (Nana Bryant) express concern over “what the war has done to our Negroes” proves too much to tolerate. Rather than tell mom off, dad (Will Geer) deposits her at home and father and son head to the local watering hole to commiserate over boilermakers and unfiltered cigarettes.

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A good rule of thumb is one coincidence per picture, and hopefully it lands no later than the 10-minute mark. In this case, the coincidence sends us packing with a smile on our faces. But given the subject matter and the period, there was no better place to position it than right before the curtain shot.

Supplementary material includes audio commentary by film historian/screenwriter Gary Gerani and the theatrical trailer.

 

 

Bend of the River

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Julia Adams, Rock Hudson.

This second of the five revered James Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns consistently gets high marks on rank-them-in-order lists, but leaving aside 1955’s perfectly respectable but unexceptional The Far Country (a ’54 release in England), you can shuffle your specific preferences in just about any order without anyone calling you crazy. I myself prefer Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie — but on the other hand, ranking 1952’s Bend of the River fourth just doesn’t quite send the right signal. (For that matter, I could use an update viewing on Country if long-promised Blu-rays ever materialize.)

Certainly, River has the “elements”: two great lead actors playing characters who are alternately friendly and adversarial with each other; a supporting cast of young screen players who were getting early career breaks on the way to expanding their fan bases; older character actors (sub-category: Western) who are not anyone’s pretty faces; and excellent Technicolor locales once we get by a shoddy-looking set-bound exterior during some an early nocturnal combat between white settlers and Shoshones. The picture was largely filmed way, way up in the Mt. Hood area of Oregon, and it’s been said that Stewart regarded it as the most physically demanding role of his career.

For a star-director quintet that proved quite popular with the public yet was relegated to functional bread-and-butter status by critics, a lot of screen ink has been expended in subsequent years on the ways in which these movies toughened up Stewart’s screen image and played a little to that persona’s occasional neurotic dimension — as in what for me are the actor’s two greatest performances (earlier on in It’s a Wonderful Life and a bit later in Vertigo). In River, Stewart keeps his emotions remarkably in check amid all sorts of narrative mayhem but finally lets it out all out late in the game when co-star Arthur Kennedy (as Stewart’s erratic sidekick) reveals his true character, which we’ve seen hinted at from the beginning.

Which is to say that the two meet when Kennedy has a rope around his neck as one about to be lynched for horse thievery — a vigilante group-vs.-individual act to which Stewart responds negatively on general principles, resulting in the former’s unambiguous rescue. Subsequently riding together, the two soon become aware that they know each other by reputation — though this mutual rep is as former “raiders” from the Civil War era, which doesn’t go down too well in postwar society. As a result, the screenplay — by Red River’s Borden Chase from a Bill Gulick novel — somewhat enters future Budd Boetticher territory in that the good guy and the bad guy have more in common than they do with, in this case, wagon train settlers. Though Stewart is trying.

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As my favorite character actor ever, Kennedy predictably delivers the standout supporting performance, but the movie also gives pretty good indication of the young contract players Universal-International was “pushing” in those days. Julie Adams (here still billed as Juli-a) is the young settler who takes an arrow in her shoulder, a la Joanne Dru in Red River, and seems as confused in her choice of men as Hope Hicks. There’s also Adams’ fellow “Creature” lust object Lori Nelson, in her screen debut as the closest thing to a bobbysoxer that the wagon train has to offer — plus Rock Hudson is a gambler named “Trey Wilson.” This said, and by virtue of being played by Rock, the guy looks nothing like the prematurely deceased comic actor from Raising Arizona and Bull Durham — though it was an appealing early role for the actor in terms of his seemingly effortless (which it wasn’t) screen magnetism. Hudson is mostly on hand to show off his professional gambler’s garb and to lend a hand during fatal shoot-outs — some of which take place in the formerly civilized Portland, which goes all crazy when someone discovers gold.

Also around — and Blu-ray commentator Toby Roan bios them all practically down to the number of times they hit the men’s room each day — are familiar Western types like Chubby Johnson, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, Jack Lambert and Howard Petrie. Not so familiar by 1952, due to the already wincingly retro nature of his act, was Stepin Fetchit, who was making his first appearance in a Hollywood film (as opposed to a so-called “race picture” of the era) in about 20 years; he plays the 40-year companion here to boat captain Johnson, which means, I guess, that the two have managed to work out their relationship. Also among the settlers eventually faced with potential starvation (and with winter approaching) is Frances Bavier. As Bing didn’t sing on his Decca recording, other than in my imagination, it’s looking like “Twilight on the Trail” for Aunt Bea. If that is, Stewart and Kennedy (who’s beginning to make it clear that he may be in it for just himself), can’t get their bought-and-paid-for supplies back from money-hungry Petrie.

Ultimately, River lacks that final “oomph” that pushes it out of the high side of decent into something more, an assessment that applies to the print here as well. The movie was shot in three-strip Technicolor, so its genes are obviously tops, but it looks as if an older master was used here, which is a crucial decision when it comes to this kind of outing. Predictably, it’s stronger in the closeups, though if you went on location in the mountains, you would instead be indulging in long shots, right? Fortunately, the inherent visual material gives River certain advantages, something that’s doubly or even triply so in its choice of protagonists. Kennedy’s character is posted as one who’s smiley, easygoing and wry most of the time (as well as generally dependable in the clutch), and no one was ever better at putting this conflicted demeanor over than the actor U-I chose for the role. Kennedy came through in a similar kind of role in The Man From Laramie, too, which (from Twilight Time and in contrast) is one of the best Blu-ray presentations of a movie from this era that I’ve ever seen.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Bend of the River’ and ‘Melvin and Howard’