The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Nevada Smith

Just a few weeks ago, I watched and reviewed 1964's The Carpetbaggers, the story of a business mogul expanding his empire in the 1920s and 1930s. A minor character in the story? An aging cowboy turned western movie star, Nevada Smith. His backstory is explained but not shown. That's for a prequel made two years later, 1966's Nevada Smith.

Working at his father's played-out mine that has recently produced some gold deposits, a young half-breed Max Sand (Steve McQueen) is away from the house when three outlaws (Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy, Martin Landau) ride up looking for that gold. Max is too late to help though, arriving at the house to find the tortured, mutilated corpses of his parents. The outlaws are nowhere to be found, but their trail is easy enough to follow. Max's biggest problem though? He's capable of caring for himself on the trail, but he has little money and no real experience with guns, especially when it comes to actually using a pistol or rifle on a human being. Desperate and with no supplies left, Max tries to rob a man on the trail. Instead, the man, Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), an experienced trailsman and capable shot, teaches Max all he can in his quest for revenge. His biggest advice though? Abandon his quest for revenge and move on with his life, but Max isn't hearing it.

It had been years since I watched this 1966 western from director Henry Hathaway (a solid western director, True Grit, Sons of Katie Elder). My biggest takeaway? It isn't as good as I remembered. Still good, still enjoyable, but not as good. There's still positives to take away though. 'Nevada' was filmed on-location in Inyo National Forest and the Owens Valley in the Sierra Mountains. Visually, it is a stunningly good-looking film with the mountains as a backdrop to the revenge story. The score from composer Alfred Newman is solid -- especially the main theme -- but isn't necessarily used enough. The best thing going is the revenge motive, a pretty gruesome story at times. Not graphic, just really violent because we know what's happening. Stabbings, drownings, choking, beating, systematic shooting of an unarmed man. It can be pretty rough at times.

So if you watch this 1966 western and come away a little confused, there's a good reason. The Max Sand character is young, really young. I'm assuming a teenager, maybe approaching 20. When the movie was made in 1965, McQueen was...35. And he's a half-breed with a white father and Kiowa mother. So yeah, he doesn't really look like a teenage half-breed (with his blonde hair too) in a pretty obvious case of miscasting. Still, McQueen makes the most of it. With the revenge motive, it is a fascinating character. Max -- later dubbing himself Nevada Smith -- becomes obsessed with killing his parents' murderers no matter what the cost on those who are helping him. McQueen does a good job in a physically demanding part, doing his own stunts while also adding a dimension of pure physicality to the performance. It's not often spoken words, just a sad look here, a drop of his shoulders there. Not ideal casting, but McQueen makes the most of it.

But the rest of the cast? The rest of the cast?!? It's pretty great. Brian Keith has always been one of my favorites, but I think this is one of his bests. His Jonas Cord is only in the movie for about 20-25 minutes but steals every scene he's in. His chemistry with McQueen is pretty perfect, and their scenes together crackle, an experienced hand with a gun trying to teach the younger Max all he can through good and bad. The Jonas/Max dynamic has always been my favorite, the movie's strongest point. With the episodic story, Malden, Kennedy and Landau make the most of their screentime, three particularly nasty villains you can't wait to see get their due. Raf Vallone is good too as Father Zaacardi, a priest who comes across Max and helps him in a time of need. Also look for familiar western faces Gene Evans, Paul Fix, Pat Hingle, John Doucette, Lyle Bettger, Howard Da Silva and Strother Martin in supporting parts.

Where does 'Nevada' go a little off the tracks then? At 130 minutes, it drifts too much with some extremely slow portions involving the episodic story. There just isn't a ton of energy at times. Two semi-love interests are added, Janet Margolin as an Indian dance hall girl and Suzanne Pleshette as a Cajun girl, are meant to show Max's obsession over a possible future with either, but they become repetitive and tedious. Just not a ton happens. The performances are good, the locations cool, but it's missing that special something. Good but not great.

Also worth mentioning is a western nerd moment. Any western fan who's seen any number of 1960s westerns will recognize Chuck Roberson, Chuck Hayward and Jerry Gatlin as background players and supporting parts. 'Nevada' takes that to new levels. Watch closely and you see them all playing multiple parts. In one scene, Roberson is part of Malden's gang, and the next he's Paul Fix's deputy. It's a little much and a little lazy, something Hathaway also did in Sons of Katie Elder. Thus ends this rant.

Nevada Smith (1966): ** 1/2 /****

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