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.

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 12/8/20;
Paramount;
Drama;
$22.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for violence and language.
Stars Al Pacino, Andy Garcia, Talia Shire, Sofia Coppola, George Hamilton, Diane Keaton, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Bridget Fonda, Richard Bright, Donal Donnelly, Raf Vallone.

For his latest trick, director Francis Ford Coppola has taken on the challenge of re-editing the oft-maligned The Godfather Part III into something a bit more palatable for fans of the first two “Godfather” films.

The legendary filmmaker has been busy lately quite literally reimagining his career. Last year saw new edits of Apocalypse Now and Cotton Club hit Blu-ray (in the form of Apocalypse Now: Final Cut and Cotton Club Encore, respectively). Those efforts may have given him the nerve to revisit the concluding film of the “Godfather” saga for its 30th anniversary.

Coppola has trimmed the film by 13 minutes (from 170 minutes to a tighter 157), rearranged a few scenes to improve the main story’s pacing, and reworked the film’s opening and closing scenes. He also reverted the title to what he preferred it to be when he was making it with original “Godfather” novelist and screenwriter Mario Puzo. In calling it a Coda with the subtitle “The Death of Michael Corleone,” Coppola sees the film more along the lines of his original intentions — as an epilogue to the story of the original films.

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In the third movie, set in 1979 and 1980, the aging Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) reflects on his decades in charge of one of America’s most notorious crime families, and continues to strive for the legitimacy he claimed to be pursuing in the first two films, which took place in the 1940s and 1950s. He embarks on a scheme to buy out a European conglomerate partly owned by the Vatican, but runs headlong into church corruption and rivals unwilling to give up the old ways.

The story quite cleverly plays into a few real-life events from the late 1970s and early 1980s, namely the death of Pope John Paul I after just a month after his ascendency, and a church banking scandal — though the script has to massage the actual timeline in order to fit the fictional Corleones into the proceedings.

Coppola’s new vision of the third “Godfather” comes complete with a sumptuous new digital restoration. The Blu-ray presentation of the new version comes devoid of extras save for a minute-and-a-half introduction from Coppola, who basically recounts his reasons for the new edit that were already quoted in Paramount’s press release announcing it.

In terms of the film’s new structure, however, some of the cosmetic changes and the shorter running time make the film a bit easier to handle as a standalone movie, but many of the problems that plagued the film upon its original release aren’t so easy to erase.

The first two “Godfather” films on their own tell an almost perfect circular narrative — the contrast in the rise of power between Vito Corleone and his son, Michael, 30 or so years apart. That they were made within two years of each other — 1972 and 1974 — only deepens the connection between the two films as broader, singular work.

It’s no coincidence, then, that supercuts of the first two films in chronological order were already being broadcast on TV by 1977.

Thus, when the third film, released 16 years after the second, by design focuses solely on Michael’s older years and his attempts to transition the family away from crime, it is only natural to compare it with the original, in which the older Vito also hinted at wanting to go legit after tiring of bloodshed. It is not a comparison that works favorably to Part III, despite its many positive traits.

That inevitable comparison may have been why Coppola was reluctant to make a third film to begin with, and when he finally agreed to do it (after reportedly encountering financial problems due to some of his films underperforming in the 1980s), his instincts told him to make it more of an epilogue to the saga rather than a continuation of it. It was the studio that saddled the film with the Part III moniker, and likely the pressure to make it an epic on the scale of the first two (both of which won Best Picture Oscars).

Interestingly, in recutting the film, Coppola discards the leisurely pacing of the original edit, and the entire ceremony of Michael being honored by the Vatican, by moving the scene of Vatican’s banking representative asking Michael for help to be the new opening scene. This new structure is similar enough to how the first film opens, with the mortician asking Don Vito for help, that the obvious intention is to further explore the parallels between the father and son crime lords. If there’s no way to rework the foundations of the film as a whole to get it to measure up, at least its ambitions as a character study give it weight.

It’s an interesting contrast. Vito’s eldest son, Sonny, is so eager to replace his father as a criminal mastermind that his shortsightedness gets him killed, putting Michael in line to take over the family business, a path Vito never intended. The only ambitions of Michael’s eldest son, Anthony, lead him to becoming an opera singer. With Michael’s daughter, Mary, the lynchpin of his attempts to legitimize, Michael has nowhere to turn but his nephew, Vincent, Sonny’s illegitimate son, to serve as the new Don.

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Coppola’s new ending seems to tread on the subtitle as more of a symbolic notion of the main character’s death, rather than the literal one that seemed tacked onto the original theatrical cut.

The further examination of Michael and his ill-fated attempts to scrub his sins are still the film’s greatest asset, even if Pacino’s portrayal seems more akin to his prototypical ’90s persona than his earlier performances as the character. The film’s most-glaring weakness, however, remains the casting of Sofia Coppola in the key role of Mary. The part had originally been intended for Julia Roberts, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, and then Winona Ryder, who left just before production due to nervous exhaustion, leaving the director to cast his own daughter in the role.

On paper, Mary’s pivotal place in Michael’s final arc is clear: She’s the shining beacon who will salvage the family’s legacy, much in the same way Vito originally envisioned Michael, but those expectations are threatened when she literally flirts with the criminal underpinnings of the family business, in the form of her cousin, Vincent (Andy Garcia). A more talented performer would have imbued Mary with a life and vibrance that forces the audience to care about her in a way that elevates the film’s reliance on her character. As much as she evolved into a talented director and screenwriter in her own right, Sofia is just not an actress, and her flat performance serves mostly to distract from the strong inter-generational dynamics between Pacino and Garcia — a criticism leveled as much at the film in 1990 as it is today. Given Mary’s foundational position to the story’s emotional underpinnings, no amount of re-editing can minimize that impact.

However, at least Mary’s arc is there for viewers to interpret. A more fundamental problem for the film is the complete absence of Tom Hagen, Robert Duvall’s character from the first two films who was practically another son to Vito and served as the family’s lawyer. Duvall opted out of the project due to a pay dispute, so Hagen was said to have died offscreen and George Hamilton was brought in to play a new family lawyer in a perfunctory role. Without Duvall, the screenplay was forced to put more emphasis on Vincent and especially Mary.

There’s no telling how much an expanded role for Duvall, with Hagen at the heart of the Corleone moral quandaries, would have elevated the film’s potential to stand alongside its predecessors.