Henry Hathaway's film is based on a character from Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers, who, in turn, based it on cowboy actor Ken Maynard. Set in the West of the 1890s, the film opens with the torture and murder of the parents of Max Sand (Steve McQueen) by a trio of gunslingers seemingly motivated by their hostility toward the mixed nature of the marriage, since the wife is a Native American. Swearing revenge, the young cowhand enlists the help of itinerant gunsmith Jonas Cord Brian Keith, who teaches him how to shoot while counseling against revenge. Nonetheless, Sand doggedly scours one town after the other before finally running up against one of the murderers, Jesse Coe (Martin Landau). He finally kills Coe in a vicious knife fight, but is severely wounded himself and has to be nursed back to health by Neesa (Janet Margolin), a young Kiowa woman. He next heads for Louisiana where another of the murderous trio, Bill Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy), is serving a prison sentence in a remote swamp. In order to get close to the man, Sand stages a robbery, and is soon among the prison inmates. This was the only film on which McQueen worked with Landau, the only other person admitted to the Actor's Studio out of thousands of applicants in 1957.
The Max Sand backstory in Harold Robbins's trashy The Carpetbaggers
(an enjoyable wallow onscreen in 1964) made for a solid Western vehicle for Steve McQueen at his peak. Nevada Smith
is a revenge movie, but closer in spirit to The Bravados
than a Death Wish
-style exercise in nihilism. Young Max, offspring of a white father and Indian mother, sets out to avenge their slaughter by three villains. His odyssey includes spiritual re-parenting at several stages, most notably by canny gun dealer Jonas Cord (a swell character part for Brian Keith). The supporting cast will have you saying, "He
's in it, too
!" at regular intervals (from costars Karl Malden and Arthur Kennedy down to such incidental interlopers as L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin). Since director Henry Hathaway and cameraman Lucien Ballard couldn't frame a bad shot if their lives depended on it, it's a relief that this movie is finally available in a widescreen format. --Richard T. Jameson