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.

Ruby Gentry

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 4/24/18;
Kino Lorber;
Drama;
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jennifer Jones, Charlton Heston, Karl Malden, Tom Tully. 

Preceded by Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead and Beyond the Forest during just the six years leading up to it, swampy Ruby Gentry capped the quartet of potboilers that formed what some later termed as “King Vidor’s hysterical period,” which I suppose puts the silent-to-talkie pioneer in a special club. Which is to ask, did Robert Bresson have a hysterical period? Did Fred Sears, even if you can probably argue that his entire career could be termed as one? The Vidor quartet is made up with movies for which one must have a special taste, or at least be in a special mood, which means that only auteurists more rigid than I will ever call them great. Though one does come out of them all wanting to yak after spending 90 minutes or more (and in Duel’s case, a lot more) on a trek into places where angels fear to tread.

Actually, Ruby clocks in at a suspicious 82, sloppily held together by its weakest feature: a clunky, spoon-fed narration by a newcomer Yankee doctor played by Bernard Phillips, a familiar-face actor who later became slightly better known as Barney (as in The Sand Pebbles). Yankees are held with suspicion in the movie’s “Carolina” setting — which, unless I missed it, isn’t specified as either North nor South, possibly because the coastal burg that backdrops Vidor’s wall-to-wall lurid heavy breathing isn’t the stuff of chamber of commerce brochures. The provincialism also extends more than even normally to the social-class snobbery toward the less pedigreed of its citizens, for which Ruby (Jennifer Jones) is the poster sex-bomb. Her prowess with a rifle would look good in NRA literature but not at the local country club’s Julep Hour, where she lack the essential cotillion gene. Unfortunately, Ruby’s longtime lust object Boake Tackman (Charlton Heston in just his fourth Hollywood feature) is part of this very set — which isn’t to imply that he’s against fooling around with her in his convertible (Cadillacs are practically supporting cast players here) or in secluded marshes far away from the 19th hole.

As with Duel, this is another movie in which Vidor — probably taking a cue from Jones’s real-life husband David O. Selznick, who gets one of those amorphous “presentation” credits here — tried to turn her in to a sex bomb. This was a marketing attempt that never really came off, even though the actress certainly had the looks to make one consider the possibility (maybe it was a slight lisp). Not un-alluringly photographed in Russell Harlan’s best nocturnal doorway shadows to resemble the cover art in the kind of certain trashy, down-and-dirty paperbacks I used to sneak-read as a kid, Jones-as-Ruby, turns out, is more natural as the hunter-shooter-boat-pilot she mostly is during daylight hours. He frustrating truth is that no one quite knew what to do with her in this period when David O. Svengali was probably telling her what brand of toothpaste to use — and who would have thought that her best role of this period would be in John Huston’s eccentric-plus Beat the Devil? But this said, Jones is, overall, a major plus here and probably the No. 1 thing Ruby has going for it — especially when the movie becomes something of a love triangle and, in particular, a revenge piece after the character’s social fortunes change.

It’s fun, at least mild fun, seeing Heston in those early roles where he played standard humans and not someone always hauling around Tablets. Heston was only four years younger than Jones in real life, which means there isn’t nearly the age differential I assumed. And if there really have to be movies where the main male character is named “Boake,” you have to say that Boakes were a lot more grounded in Chuck’s wheelhouse more than they would have been in, say, Clifton Webb’s.

Despite the moniker, Heston is kind of a normal character here (something of a crud, but normal) — which is more than you say for her brother, played by that specialist in twisted rural creeps: James Anderson. In real life, he was the brother of actress Mary Anderson, who played the cute nurse in Hitchcock’s Lifeboat before curtailing her career after marrying four-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Leon Shamroy (who shot both The Robe and The Girl Can’t Help It for a full career right there). James is best known for later playing the main heavy and Atticus Finch adversary in the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I’m pretty certain I recall Gregory Peck saying in a Mockingbird doc that Anderson didn’t like him personally. Uh, not like Gregory Peck? So if I’m recalling this right, Anderson must have come naturally to the posterior boil he has here — shouting the Gospel, strumming a guitar around the house, repressing homicidal thoughts and, to give him needed points, being right when he warns Ruby about trying to get above her social station.

Released in limited fashion as a so-called prestige project on Christmas Day of ’52 for apparent Oscar consideraton, Ruby was an independent project co-produced by Vidor and distributed by 20th Century-Fox, though I’ve never seen it shown (going back several decades) with a Fox logo. We’ve all seen too many prints of vintage indies that look as if the original negatives were stored in some Mojave-based UPS box — but except for some significant image specking on a light visual background (during a key scene, alas) that looks a little like microbes under a microscope, this is a cleaner and also sharper-looking copy than I expected to see.

Andrew Sarris suggested in The American Cinema that Vidor was a greater director of individual scenes than sustained movies, and there are redeeming bits here and there that transcend what is at heart an amusingly trashy time at the movies — one of them a honey where Boake’s convertible speeds along the beach and into the surf (in a floating manner that would worry me) so that the lovers can do what lovers do to relax Boake’s golf putting finesse on the club links. One major bonus here is the backdrop theme (“Ruby”), which became a significant harmonica hit for Richard Hayman in spring of ’53. Later, after lyrics were added, Ray Charles made it his own around Christmas of ’60 for one of his most indelible recordings.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Ruby Gentry’ and ‘Madigan’

The Hanging Tree

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Western;
$21.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Gary Cooper, Maria Schell, Ben Piazza, Karl Malden, George C. Scott. 

Gary Cooper made three more movies after The Hanging Tree before his death in the spring of 1961, but due to varied limitations in terms of conception and/or execution, none of them seem like the “real” Gary Cooper movie that this oddball 1959 Western (filmed in Yakima, Wash., but set in Cooper’s real-life home state of Montana) absolutely does. For some strange reason known only to my sometimes equally oddball-ish thought processes, I thought of this movie while watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — for no obvious reason. Other than the fact, that is, that the tones of both couldn’t care less about adhering to any established norms of their respective genres on the way to establishing tones of their own, which are highly eccentric. In other words, each is borderline unique.

Though based on a novel by Dorothy M. Johnson, who wrote the short story on which The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was based, Tree also brings to mind a second Ford-Wayne masterpiece: The Searchers. Not in quality, to be sure — but due to the fact that this is another Technicolor superstar Warner Bros. Western from roughly the same movie era where nearly everyone in it ranges from being a little “tetched” to downright crazy. Notably, this off-center lineup doesn’t include Cooper’s character himself, who is stalwart and above it all; in fact, if you ever want to see what totally commanding superstardom was, here’s as good a place to begin as any. This said, the poker-loving physician Cooper plays has a rumored deep, dark secret in his past: something involving a not unintentional house fire that killed a man and woman — an event not explained at all until the end and even then with a key detail or two missing. One senses that it was traumatic enough to knock any involved survivor of it permanently off kilter, but Cooper is doing his best to stay above it all.

Meanwhile, there’s George C. Scott playing a phony frontier religious fanatic (think about it) in his big screen debut. There’s also Karl Malden, in a performance that’s broad even for him in those times when his directors let go of the reins, as a salacious creep whose underwear probably hasn’t been changed since the Crusades — which must make it pretty tough on Doc Cooper when he has to lance a boil on Malden’s behind (think: A Streetcar Named Retch). Cast as a near-lynching victim who’s blackmailed into indentured servitude after Cooper saves him, Ben Piazza (who was mostly relegated to TV after his movie debut here as well) has an acting style that seems more out of a subsequent century — though he still halfway fits in, given this crazy company. And co-lead Maria Schell, who always seemed fairly normal on screen other than her tendency to turn on her sunbeam smile too much, plays a character whose demons are built-in by the script. She’s been left badly sunburned and blinded (for a while, anyway) after barely escaping from a stagecoach robbery in which every other passenger was killed. Malden takes advantage by sneaking looks at her in stages of undress, which suggests Donald Trump’s braggadocio over walking in on Miss Teen USA contestants during costume changes. (Trump, you have to believe, probably has at least two boils.)

Cooper tries to take the high road by treating Schell’s burns and laboring to restore her sight, but the town crone (Jack Webb/“Dragnet” favorite Virginia Gregg) assumes the worst about the village newcomer’s necessary residence in the doctor’s shack — a rather strange target, given the fair abundance of gold-town prostitutes around who aren’t exactly trying to disguise their trade. And indeed, this makeshift burg does have gold fever, which is driving the supporting cast as loopy as the principals — enough, even, to make Scott’s preacher smell money, though one never gets the sense that he’s ever undergone any valid spiritual calling at any point in his life. Today, he’d be on some Sunday morning cable show hawking his new DVD for the temporary low price of $2,495, throwing in a 4-by-6 black-and-white of Charlton Heston (from The Pigeon That Took Rome because he got a bulk deal from the retailer) if you order now.

Tree was last in a cycle of really good Delmer Daves Westerns from the middle and late ’50s, and a wonderful live June 8, 1958, edition of Dave Garroway’s “Wide Wide World” (which aired in NBC’s Sunday afternoon TV ghetto; I saw it at the time) shows him directing Cooper out and around the doctor’s shack in a location that’s somewhere between hilly and mountainous. (Findable on DVD if you’re wearing a miner’s cap, the show also featured Wayne, Ford, Gene Autry, Walter Brennan and more — even The Great Train Robbery’s real-life tenderfoot Broncho Billy Anderson, who’d been a long time between gigs but had just gotten a special Oscar a couple months earlier.) The somewhat underrated Daves, at least until the very end, was about to undergo a massive career switch following the coming Christmas’s smash hit of A Summer Place, launching a series of soapers that half-promoted teenaged sex as long as it was with Troy Donahue.

Cooper’s man-in-black look here is one of the coolest I’ve seen, and it points up how much costuming that we don’t even think about can have such a potent effect on character and drama. The actor was probably sick by this time (cancer), but it doesn’t show to my eye, and I love that we have both this film and the even better Man of The West from so close to the end of his line. Even penny-pinching Jack Warner (see Alan K. Rode’s massive but panther-paced new Michael Curtiz bio for countless examples) had bailed on dribbly Warner Color by this time, so Tree was Technicolor (and on the higher side of that). The cinematographer was Ted McCord, who never seems to have gotten the due he deserves, though he shot Johnny Belinda, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden and The Sound of Music.

For extra cosmetics, Marty Robbins gets the movie off to a great start by singing the Oscar-nominated title tune over the credits (it only got to Billboard No. 38 but deserved better). It’s also featured on the classic Hell Bent for Leather LP (I bought it in 1961, upon release), whose front jacket features Frankie Laine in a gun-belt. Truth to tell, Frankie was as much of a tenderfoot as Broncho Billy, but he looked the part and even once appeared in a “Rawhide” episode that I saw at the time. Though judging from how Clint Eastwood talked to the trees in Paint Your Wagon, Laine must not have given the show’s co-star any successful tips on how to song-belt.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Hanging Tree’ and ‘Steve McQueen: American Icon’