If you’ve read Harold Robbins’ novel THE CARPETBAGGERS (which I have) or seen the movie version (done that, too), you know there’s a supporting character called Nevada Smith who’s an actor in early Western movies. From the little bit of back-story Robbins provided for that character, scripter John Michael Hayes and director Henry Hathaway came up with NEVADA SMITH, a film that fleshes out all that background.
Steve McQueen plays Max Sand, a young man whose parents are murdered viciously by three outlaws (Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy, and Martin Landau). He sets out to track them down and get revenge, and along the way he falls in with a gunsmith (Brian Keith) who becomes his surrogate father. Revenge Westerns are usually pretty straightforward, and that’s the case here. NEVADA SMITH works for a variety of reasons, though, chief among them McQueen in the title role. (His character adopts the name Nevada Smith as an alias fairly late in the film, if you were wondering.) The rest of the cast is first-rate, though, including those already mentioned as well as Suzanne Pleshette, Janet Margolin, Pat Hingle, Paul Fix, John Doucette, Sandy Kenyon, and Stanley Adams. Henry Hathaway was a good solid director who knew his way around a Western, the photography by Lucien Ballard is spectacular, and the score by Alfred Newman is excellent. NEVADA SMITH is also a good example of how movies were getting grittier in the mid-Sixties. There’s a considerable amount of sex and some graphic violence. Put everything together and you’ve got a big, entertaining Western that strives for epic status and doesn’t quite make it, but not for lack of trying.