Director: Henry Hathaway
Writer: John Michael Hayes; based on The Carpetbaggers, 1961 by Harold Robbins
Cinematographer: Lucien Ballard
Producer: Henry Hathaway and Joseph E. Levine
by Jon Cvack
Nevada Smith is the third Netflix Western I’ve watched, following both El Dorado (1966) and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), serving as a fitting example of how a bad transfer can affect the experience. While there was some really great stuff photography, particularly with some of locations, it took on that typical muddy, antiquated look like most western films contain. Unlike the more cerebral stories offered in the above, this is very much an action film, with just a little bit of heart to make it forgivable. I haven’t seen the original Django (1966), and coincidentally Nevada Smith was made in the same year, but both films have clearly affected Tarantino’s story.
The story starts off in some far Western town, likely Nevada, though looks closer to the California Sierras, where a trio of bandits approaches Max Sand (Steve McQueen) who’s a “half-breed” (that is, half American/half-Native) which is so entirely ridiculous and offensive that I had trouble keeping the movie on. There are countless moments in history where white actors played people of color - Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil and Mickey Rooney Breakfast at Tiffany’s - and while those were wildly offensive, there was at least an intention, however offensive, to look like the race these white men were depicting. In Nevada Smith Steve McQueen has no makeup, there is no costume, there are no ethnic characteristics. It was just a white person expressing the title of another ethnicity, as though no one would notice or mind. Added, Max’s character is a “boy”. And while it could have been at times that friendly and sarcastic condescension (at times bigotry) that make for some Western tough talk, I honestly think McQueen was meant to be under 18 years old. He was 35 at the time of filming and looks old; having wrinkles and a receding hairline.
Any way - some brigand kills Max’s Native American mother and his white father; not just shooting them dead, but then skinning their scalps. Nevada swears to avenge them, heading off on a mission to hunt down and kill the trio, except he can’t read, write, or shoot a gun. He finds the help of one of the great Before-the-Journey mentor characters, Corn Sr. (Brian Keith), who trains Max how to be a sharpshooting gunslinger - capable of hitting a rock thrown into the sky while riding a horse - all in the matter of a few days. He also warns him to beware of getting wrapped up in banditry.
So he heads off and the first death is Jesse, played by a young Walter Landau, whose strong features are absolutely terrifying. The big struggle ends in the middle of a fenced in cow herd, taking on a very Tarantino-like style.
I want to pause here for a moment in that I think that we’ve entered a time where every badass action scene is now compared to Tarantino (or the Coen Bros). He’s one of the greatest filmmakers of all time who was able to look to movies like this and improve and modernize the scenes. The same type of Tarantino scenes existed in both El Dorado and The Sons of Katie Elder, and I think if enough people saw these incredible transfers their scenes would be shared just as much as any others; precluding the need to constantly compare cool and badass scenes to Tarantino (or the Coen Bros).
The film starts strong, and then around the forty minute point it got kind of boring for about twenty minutes, just falling into old Western tropes, culminating in a ridiculous scene where seemingly out of nowhere Max decides to go and rob a bank, getting caught, with the whole episode lasting for maybe a minute, making me wonder if it was only included to get to the best part of the movie which is Max being sent to hard labor at a swamp jail; providing the film's greatest set piece.
We get to see a bunch of old boats and cool machines that they use to chop down the swampland. This is where I was longing for a better looking, remastered picture because this mixture of machines, the swamp, and prisoners was incredible.
It’s a hard run place with no walls, but as the Warden says, “The swamp are our walls,” then punching Max in the head. But it’s a really cool plot device. They don’t need walls due to the swamp’s abundance of quicksand, malaria, mosquitoes, and poisonous snakes no one could survive if they tried to escape. Although the place is run like a slave labor camp (which I guess it is), the Warden has an arrangement with a nearby brothel, where the women are - I believe - sex slaves in service to the prisoners in order to further prevent their involvement.
Max meets one woman Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) and they fall in love or maybe Max pretends he does in order to use her knowledge of the swamp to get him out of there and to kill the last of his parent’s murderers. They use a boat, which is so noticeable and in the middle of the entire camp that, like the bank scene, it had to have been developed as a device to get Max out of the prison.
Nevertheless, Pilar gets bitten by a snake. They meet another man who turns out to be one of the guys who killed Max’s parents. Max survives the swamp, heads back to town, and waits to join up with the gang of the last man he has to kill, Tom Fitch (Karl Madden). This part was kind of just a longer version of the same plot-serving problem, albeit not as ridiculous, but it felt like it simply provided the groundwork for the climatic Big Western Shoot Out. I actually think it would have been far cooler if Max discovered him at home with his wife and daughter or something; kind of like what happens in Sicario (2015).
All morals about gross killings in action films and why people like them aside, revenge films are fun movies. And because this film was celebrating a more despicable form of justice - again, they skinned his parents alive and shot the father’s head off at point blank - I understood the sense of duty to kill all of them. That’s not some Western gunslinging murder; those are disturbing and psychotic slaughtering. And Max then let's the last guy go; who very well might recover and go off and do it again. He should have at least loaded him on a horse and brought him to prison to prevent Fitch from ever doing anything like that again. Instead he let him go. I don't even understand what Max learned to generate such sympathy. Aside from the bummer ending and some uninspired devices, there’s a decent amount of cool stuff to check out.
BELOW: Great western death scene
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