In Nevada Smith Steve McQueen is a half-breed, born out of an Indian (sorry: Native American) mother and a white father. Blue-eyed and fair-haired McQueen may seem an odd choice to play a half-breed, but note that we’re in the Sixties when white actors were often asked to impersonate biracial characters: Paul Newman would play one in Hombre (1967), Elvis Presley had played one in Flaming Star (1960).
The film tells the background story of a character, Max Sand, created by Harold Robbins in his novel The Carpetbeggers (*1). Sand is a young man who vows revenge on the three men who have murdered his parents in gruesome fashion: we’re told (luckily not shown) that his mother - a ‘squaw’ - was skinned alive). A travelling gunsmith (Brian Keith) teaches him how to use a gun, but also warns him that the desire for vengeance may ruin a man’s life. Max disregards all good advice and sets out to track the three murderers down, one by one. The villains have gone separate ways and Max even follows one of them into a Louisiana prison camp to get even with the piece of vermin.
Keith's warnings are a first indication that the film wants to say something about vigilantism, but its message is rather obscure. In The Bravados (1958, Henry King) Gregory Peck discovers that he has tracked down and killed the wrong man. In the Italian western Da Uomo a Uomo (Death Rides a Horse, Giulio Petroni, 1967) the juvenile avenger discovers that his mentor was present at the scene of the crime (albeit not as one of the killers). In both cases the discovery sheds a new light on the avenger and his obsessions. In Nevada Smith all pleadings to give up his quest and lead a normal life (not only by his mentor, but also by a priest and a girl who has developed feelings for him) seem to have little or no effect, but then, all of a sudden, when he’s about to kill the last murderer he concludes that the man ‘isn’t worth it’. Isn’t worth what? Max has shot the man both the arms and legs and he is most probably bleeding to death. It’s a rather sadistic scene and the effect is opposite to the redemptive effect the film makers most probably had in mind.
Nevada Smith (*2) was popular among moviegoers but critical reactions were mixed. At the age of 36, Steve McQueen is too old to play a teenager at the beginning of the movie and the evolution of the central character from a young inexperienced boy into a hardened killer isn’t very convincing. Instead of being epic, the film feels episodic, with some episodes working better than others. But it remains a fairly exciting revenge western and McQueen’s screen presence is so strong that we are (almost) willing to accept all these complications caused by his casting: he was not called ‘Mr. Cool’ without reason. And the supporting cast is very fine, notably Brian Keith as his mentor and Karl Malden as the most vicious of the murderers.
Dir: Henry Hathaway - Cast: Steve McQueen (Max Sand/Nevada Smith), Karl Malden (Tom Fitch), Brian Keith (Jonas Cord), Suzanne Pleshette (Pilar), Arthur Kennedy (Bill Bowdre), Martin Landau (Jesse Coe), Raf Vallone (Father Zaccardi), Janet Margolin (Neesa), Pat Hingle (Big Foot), Paul Fix (Sheriff Bonnell) - Cinematography: Lucien Ballard - Music: Alfred Newman
*1) The film describes Max Sands’ first encounter with another character from the novel, Jonas Cord, but the story and script were originally written for the movie. In the 1964 screen adaptation of Robbins’ novel the characters of Max Sands and Jonas Cord were played by Alan Ladd and George Peppard respectively.
*2 Max 'adopts' the name Nevada Smith relatively late into the movie.