NEVADA SMITH | 50 Furious Westerns
One of the greatest revenge themed Westerns is Henry Hathaway’s NEVADA SMITH (1966) starring Steve McQueen. The story is set in the 1890s and begins when three outlaws Jesse Coe (Martin Landau), Bill Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy) and Tom Fitch (Karl Malden) viciously rob, torture and kill the parents of young Max Sand (Steve McQueen). Max is a half breed, his father is white and his mother Native American. In the wake of the murders, Max vows to seek revenge on the men responsible and sets off on his own. He soon comes upon a lone traveler Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) who he tries to rob, but is thwarted. Cord, it turns out is a gunsmith and takes it easy on Max when he learns about his sad situation. He then helps Max learn how to use a gun and makes sure he knows how dangerous it is to be in a gunfight. Most importantly he tries to steer Max away from his revenge by explaining he will be damaged by it forever. This occurs several times in the movie by those who come to care about him. Max still doesn’t care and continues on the trail of getting his satisfaction. Through the help of an Indian saloon girl Neesa (Janet Margolin) Max is able to track down one of the killers Jesse, who has assumed another name and is living in Abilene, Texas. Max confronts Coe and the two have a thrilling fight inside a corral, which ends with Max being wounded but killing Coe. He is then taken to Neesa’s tribal home where he recuperates from the fight and the two fall in love.
Max continues on his way soon after and commits a robbery to be thrown in the same bayou prison camp as Bill Bowdre. While there he meets a young Cajun woman named Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) who he woos to get her assistance. Pilar agrees to help Max steal a boat to escape through the swamp and he gets Bowdre to come along with them, assuming he is simply a fellow prisoner trying to bust out. During the escape, Max attacks and kills Bowdre but Pilar is tragically bitten by a poisonous snake and dies after cursing Max for being a heartless murderer. Max is shamed and saddened by Pilar’s death for a time but his rage still consumes him and he continues his search.
Max is almost killed while being lynched by some outlaws after using Fitch’s name as a way to get information but is saved by a priest, Father Zaccardi (Raf Vallone) who intervenes and gives Max shelter at the church. Max learns that the Father experienced a similar tragedy when he was young but decided to turn away from revenge. He implores Max to give it up and forget but Max cannot find a way to do that. Max tracks down the last man Fitch, who is leading a gang on a robbery of some gold. Max uses the fake name “Nevada Smith” to infiltrate Fitch’s gang. Fitch is still suspicious of him, believing he may in fact be the man he hears is out to kill him. Fitch tests Max to see if he is for real, but luckily, Max doesn’t let down his guard and the charade works. Malden is one of the nastiest bad guys ever in this movie, he is truly one mean son of a bitch and you really hope he gets his due.
I think the only real flaw with Nevada Smith might be the age McQueen is at. He’s certainly not a young kid here (age 36) and the story calls for someone a bit more naive and youthful. That being said, it’s not a really big problem as he carries the role exceptionally well. It remains one of my favorite films from his career.
NEVADA SMITH was photographed by Lucien Ballard who went on to work most famously with Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch). The locations for filming included the Inyo National Forest (in parts of southern California and south-western Nevada) and the Owens Valley (of southern California) in the Eastern Sierra mountains. The picturesque backdrop of the movie and tight direction by Hathaway help make the movie a real classic from the 1960s when Westerns were at their peak.