I've had the DVD of NEVADA SMITH (1966) on my shelf for years. I don't recall how I got it. I may have bought it used or, more than likely, picked it up in a trade. Regardless of how it came into my possession, it sat on my shelf unwatched for several years.
I don't know why I resisted watching this film. After all, Steve McQueen is one of my favorite actors and it is a western, one of my favorite film genres. I think my aversion to the film was the somewhat tenuous connection to the Harold Robbins' novel THE CARPETBAGGERS. I've never read the book or seen the film that was made from it by I gather that the character of Nevada Smith plays some role in the story. Since I hold Mr. Robbins' entire body of work in less than high regard, I figured (incorrectly), that NEVADA SMITH was some kind of trashy, soap opera styled western.
Boy, was I wrong.
I finally watched the film the other night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a standard revenge tale set in the Old West. McQueen is a young half-breed whose gold mining parents are slaughtered at the beginning of the film by an unholy trio of bad guys played by Martin Landau, Arthur Kennedy and Karl Malden. McQueen is left to burn his parents' corpses and swear revenge on the three men, no matter how long it takes.
He sets out to find the men and soon encounters Brian Keith, a gun dealer who schools McQueen in the art of handling a gun. McQueen tracks down Landau in Abilene and the two square off in a knife fight in a cattle pen. Guess who wins?
Next, McQueen learns that Arthur Kennedy is in prison in Louisiana. McQueen stages an armed robbery in New Orleans just to get arrested and assigned to the work gang in the swamps where Kennedy is doing hard time. Here he meets a beautiful young Cajun woman (Suzanne Pleshette) who helps him and Kennedy escape through the swamps. Unfortunately, neither Kennedy or Pleshette survive the escape.
Finally, McQueen tracks down Karl Malden and his new gang in the gold fields of California. McQueen joins up with the gang and becomes part of an elaborate gold heist. He finally shoots Malden who begs him to finish him off but McQueen, now sick of killing, tells him "you're not worth killing" and walks away. The End.
Throughout the film, I kept wondering why it was entitled NEVADA SMITH. There's no one in the film that goes by that name. It's only near the end of the movie that McQueen uses the name as an alias when he falls in with Malden's gang.
Capably directed by Henry Hathaway, NEVADA SMITH sports great on-location cinematography and a stellar supporting cast. The lovely Joanna Moore (Nurse Peggy on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) has a small part as Landau's widow and character actor icon Strother Martin appears in one very brief scene. In the scene, he's referred to as "Strother" which makes me suspect a couple of things. One, there's missing footage with more of the "Strother" character, perhaps as part of the group of cowhands that McQueen is briefly a member of. Or, Strother Martin just happened to be on the set that day and agreed to do the cameo as a lark.
While I was watching NEVADA SMITH, I kept wondering how I could have missed this terrific film for so many years. I also wondered what other overlooked treasures are sitting on the shelves of my DVD collection. NEVADA SMITH is a first rate film. If you're a fan of either western films or Steve McQueen, check it out. If you're a fan of both, you're in for a treat.