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Nevada Smith

Posted on the 22 July 2016 by Christopher Saunders
Nevada SmithHarold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers inspired a monstrously successful film, which in turn inspired a Western prequel. Nevada Smith (1966) boasts veteran director Henry Hathaway and an excellent cast, but winds up a disappointment.
Max Sand (Steve McQueen) watches his parents murdered by three outlaws. Swearing vengeance, he comes under the tutelage of gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) and seeks out his foes. After several years he kills Jesse (Martin Landau) in a saloon and Bill (Arthur Kennedy) in a Louisiana swamp, becoming a hardened criminal. When he finally finds Tom Fitch (Karl Malden), Max wonders whether he's still game for revenge.
Nevada Smith is a ramshackle contraption. After a gruesome opening atrocity, John Michael Hayes' script crams familiar tropes together haphazardly. Max is half-Indian and faces token racism, but this carries less importance than his apprenticeship with Jonas. The movie mixes gunplay and scenery with digressive lacunas, as Max spends time in a Louisiana prison camp, a Western cow town and a Catholic sanctuary. At 128 minutes, Nevada Smith seems hopelessly overstuffed.
Worse, Smith injects pious moral lessons, with Max growing to doubt his mission. He romances an Indian saloon girl (Janet Margolin) and the Cajun woman (Suzanne Pleshette) who helps him escape prison. Kindly Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) urges him to renounce violence, a subplot rehashed from a hundred Warner Bros. gangster films. Max's moral dilemma provides a cheap complication, lacking the weight to offset the B Movie thrills.
Hathaway's direction makes the film watchable. Lucien Ballard's beautiful photography and Alfred Newman's score grant Smith an epic sweep its story rarely matches. An old hand at Westerns, Hathaway presents effective action scenes: the opening is muted yet grisly, while Max's duel with Jesse is tense and well-staged. The Louisiana scenes drip with hot, sticky atmosphere even if they run too long. Only the climax is underwhelming, undercut by plot demands.
Steve McQueen is embarrassingly miscast as a callow, wide-eyed teen, nor is he a convincing half-Kiowa. Once Max matures to grim adulthood, McQueen fares better. Brian Keith invests his stock role with weary humor, while Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau make a savage villain trio. Suzanne Pleshette gets high billing but Janet Margolin makes a stronger impression. Paul Fix, Pat Hingle and Strother Martin fill minor roles.
Nevada Smith shows the perils of spinoffs inspired by minor characters in trashy novels. Not a bad watch on a slow summer afternoon, its overachieving laziness squanders an impressive array of talent.

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