Nevada Smith was a Joseph Levine production for Embassy (director Henry Hathaway and star Steve McQueen also got producer credits) and was a project first thought of as a sequel (actually a prequel or spin-off) to the Edward Dmytryk-directed The Carpetbaggers, the quite successful 1964 movie made from Harold Robbins’s 1961 best-seller of the same title. Like The Carpetbaggers, Nevada Smith was to have starred Alan Ladd.
Now there were three major problems with this. Firstly, Alan Ladd was just about OK romancing Jean Arthur in a courtly fashion in Shane, but he couldn’t do the tough guy in a Western for the life of him. He was just unsuited. Furthermore, Nevada Smith, unlike The Carpetbaggers, was to be an out-and-out Western, with a basic avenge-the-dead daddy plot. It required a very tough lead. Secondly, the lead character of Smith was supposed to be a teenager at the start of the story, and Ladd was already 50 when he made The Carpetbaggers. They could have used another actor for the early part of the story but chose not to. Lastly, Alan Ladd died in January 1964 and wasn’t available.
So they cast Steve McQueen instead. Click here for our overview of McQueen’s Westerns. Shooting started in July 1965. In all honesty, the lead was not much of an improvement. Blond McQueen, then 36, was just as unsuited as a naïve and illiterate half-Kiowa sixteen-year-old, as several reviews of the time noted. The Cleveland Press of the day said, “McQueen physically does not fit so youthful a role, a problem he tries to solve by adopting an air of bewilderment.” McQueen’s Western bona fides really rest on his Josh Randall character in CBS’s Wanted: Dead or Alive, which ran for three seasons 1958 – 61, his second-billed part as Vin in The Magnificent Seven in 1960, his Junior Bonner for Sam Peckinpah in 1972, if you call that a Western, and the late Tom Horn, when he was pretty ill, poor man, in 1980. He was to have been Quigley Down Under but his death forestalled that. So it isn’t the greatest of Westerns CVs.
Of course, he came late to the genre, and that’s another problem with Nevada Smith: it was a mid-sixties oater, released in May 1966, and this was hardly the high-water mark of the feature Western. 146 big-screen Westerns came out in 1966, which sounds a lot, but many of these were pulp-fiction spaghettis and the half-decent American ones included the likes of pallid remakes of The Plainsman and Stagecoach and a Magnificent Seven sequel (which McQueen was left out of), the rather tired Hawks/Wayne rehash El Dorado, a couple of those equally tired ‘geezer westerns’ of AC Lyles, and so on. About the best Western effort of the year was the Richard Brooks-directed The Professionals, with Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin and Robert Ryan. So in truth, Nevada Smith didn’t have a great deal of competition.
Henry Hathaway directed. It was the year after he helmed The Sons of Katie Elder, which was quite successful, but Nevada Smith wasn’t a patch on that. I won’t say Hathaway had lost it, because he still had maybe his best Western of all, True Grit, to come, but late Hathaway like Nevada Smith, 5 Card Stud and Shoot-Out really weren’t classy Westerns, I’m afraid. The pace of Nevada Smith is uneven (parts drag) and the picture lacks unity, somehow. It’s episodic, like a TV show. You could actually say it’s three films, with different casts, tacked into one. Variety in its review talked of “often lethargic direction”.
The great photographer Lucien Ballard was at the camera and there were some very nice Californian, Arizona and Louisiana locations shot in Eastmancolor and Panavision. Paramount didn’t stint on that, and threw a $4m budget at it. So the picture is a good looker. But that alone doesn’t make a good Western. Variety again: “Overlength serves to dull the often spectacular production values.” Yes, at 2 hours 19 minutes, the picture was pretty snail-like.
The story was by John Michael Hayes, who had written Sam Spade for radio, Peyton Place for TV and some big features, such as Rear Window for Hitchcock. So it ought to have been good. But in a very long career he only wrote two Westerns, War Arrow in 1953 and this one, and he didn’t really ‘get’ it. It has been suggested that plot of the obsessive revenge-minded half-breed was based on cowboy actor Ken Maynard’s early life, before he became a Hollywood cowboy star. Hmm, maybe.
Dubious casting wasn’t confined to McQueen. Most unfortunately, Karl Malden was chosen (as second choice to Eli Wallach) as the second-billed villain Fitch. Malden was perfectly dreadful in Westerns, and the word overacting doesn’t really cover it. But of all the pictures he did, I would say this one, Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, the bad guy in a cap in Delmer Daves’s The Hanging Tree and, especially, his completely hysterical scenery-chewing on John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn were the worst. His last scene, when Smith gets his revenge, leaves him literally screaming his lines. His performance was embarrassingly bad.
Suzanne Pleshette was chosen as the romance interest, an unconvincing Cajun farm worker – though she doesn’t appear till 72 minutes in. She said in an interview that her love scenes with McQueen in this movie were horribly awkward for both of them, as they had enjoyed a completely platonic friendship and he had rather taken on the role of big brother to her.
Brian Keith was third-billed as gunsmith Jonas Cord, who acts as mentor to the young boy. He was in fact not much older than McQueen. Keith was very inclined, a bit like Robert Mitchum, to do any old role that came along and sleepwalk through it, not bothering to turn up for the première. He’s OK in this one, not too bad, but he certainly doesn’t spark, as he could do if motivated.
There are some good Western actors lower down the list, such as Pat Hingle, Paul Fix, Gene Evans, John Doucette, Lyle Bettger, Ted de Corsia and (in his last film) John Litel, but these have too small parts to do anything with them and are unable to contribute much or ‘lift’ the picture.
Variety politely, not to say euphemistically, called the acting “uneven”.
The first thirty minutes aren’t bad, almost wordless and quite captivating. But it errs and strays into the slough of despond thereafter.
The Alfred Newman music is ‘big’ and has some verve here and there anyway.
The Cleveland Press said, “Nevada Smith is hack work, with a plot that is not so much unbelievably bad but simply unbelievable.”
More recently, Brian Garfield talked of “a fragmented dreary script and extremely poor acting by key performers”, Erick Maurel calls it “this lazy, predictable and badly-paced Western”, while Dennis Schwartz says it is “overlong, dull and labored.” That well-known critic Jeff Arnold called it “mediocre”.
Despite the shortcomings and distinctly unflattering reviews, the picture did reasonably well at the box-office. The Carpetbaggers was still in the charts and maybe that drew in the crowds. McQueen was also quite a draw, after The Great Escape and The Cincinnati Kid. It didn’t get anywhere near the gross of $19m for The Professsionals but it took $5m in the US, so that was at least a modest profit.
A little snippet: according to the AFI Catalog, “the 22 Oct 1965 Daily Variety announced that Levine would host a party on 29 Oct 1965 on the Nevada Smith set at Paramount Pictures, in honor of the Theatre Owners of America (TOA), who were holding a convention in Los Angeles. The night of the party, a fire broke out at neighboring Desilu Studios and spread to the Paramount lot. While no one was killed or injured, the 30 Oct 1965 Los Angeles Times … estimated property damages at $200,000. Steve McQueen reportedly assisted firefighters in dousing the flames.”
We are also led to believe that the name Nevada Smith was the original inspiration for Indiana Jones. George Lucas’s character’s name was originally Indiana Smith (after his dog Indiana). Eventually they decided they preferred Jones to Smith.
You could watch this one. Or not.