Steve McQueen is one of those actors who will always be an icon of the silver screen and an actor who just personifies cool. The Getaway (1972) is easily my favorite film of McQueen’s. He has several other films one could argue that are “better”, but for me it will always be the Sam Peckinpah classic. Over his career he’s played a variety of roles from being a cowboy, a detective, a race car driver, to a professional thief and so forth, and for the most part I could believe him in all of these roles, but Nevada Smith is the first time I had to put up my hands and just go “are you kidding me?” For some reason they felt the audience would buy that a 35-year-old McQueen could play a 16-year-old half-Native-American character. Now if you can get past that kind of absurd casting and just go into the movie and accept as a western / revenge film, then Nevada Smith is a helluva good time with gunslinging action with beautiful locations and a terrific cast.
The film opens up with Max Sands (McQueen) coming home to discover that his Native American mother and his father have been killed by a trio of men looking to steal some gold. Max wastes little time to mourn his family as he sets out for revenge, only the trouble is he doesn’t know where to go or even how to shoot. This leads him to encounter Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), who takes pity on Max and decides to train and feed him for a bit. When the two part ways, we can see that Max is a little more prepared to continue his journey for revenge, but is he really able to take a life? The first of the men he encounters is Jesse Coe (Martin Landau), who is a knife expert, and this builds up to an entertaining confrontation and some nice stunt work by those involved. I love that this confrontation didn’t take the typical easy approach and just have the two men square up in the middle of the road and pull guns on each other … Instead we get a shootout, cattle running amuck, and a knife fight, and this is only Max’s first of three major confrontations, so it definitely sets the tone for what is to come, and it doesn’t let the audience down.
The next chapter in this tale of revenge has Max being sent to a prison camp deep within the swamps of Louisiana. Honestly this was my favorite portion of the film, and it is almost its own story, with Max even finding time for romance as he falls for Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette), a Cajun girl working a plantation near where the prisoners are working. The romance is here to give Max a way out from taking out his revenge and becoming no different from the men who killed his parents. We see a lot of this over the course of the film where people will cross Max’s path as a way to sway him from getting his revenge. We see how revenge compromises Max, but we also get to see how it impacts those around him. The film isn’t subtle about its message, especially as it gets into the third act and he confronts the third and final man responsible for the murder of his family. As for how the name “Nevada Smith” comes into play, it takes a while, but it makes sense when we see Max take on the moniker.
The film is directed by Henry Hathaway, who is no stranger to the western genre and is responsible for the classic True Grit (1969), which in my opinion has John Wayne’s best performance and may be Hathaway’s masterpiece of western cinema. But Nevada Smith is certainly the film he made first, and the scale of this film, at least location-wise, really showcases the man’s work. Working behind the camera as the cinematographer is the excellent Lucien Ballard, who went on to work with Peckinpah on The Wild Bunch and The Getaway; he also went on to work with Hathaway again on True Grit. Basically Ballard is responsible for shooting some of the best looking American westerns and showcasing not just some beautiful landscapes but some of the best action sequences of the time. The 4K scan of the 35mm print really showcases the beauty of this film from the mountains in the west to the swamplands of the south.
I went into this one not knowing what to expect, and by the time the credits were rolling, this was definitely a film that I found myself enjoying and can see myself watching a few more times down the road. I feel like this would be a fun double feature with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, but maybe that’s just me.