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.
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.