Nevada Sands = The Killing Ground
The kid's creepy. He ain't human! He doesn't kill people; he executes them. Yeah, he executes them! - Tom Fitch
Sometimes I get a feeling that a movie gets praised not because it's actually any good but because it has a big star name attached to it. "Nevada Smith" from 1966 is one just movie because the whole concept of it, a naive young man driven to become a hardened killer, should be fascinating yet it ends up quite dull and overlong. It's not a terrible movie but the faults turn it into something average. But people seem to like it and all I can put it down to is that it stars Steve McQueen and so for some is great just through association.
After finding his mother and father brutally murdered, young and naive Max Sand (Steve McQueen - The Great Escape) heads out to get revenge on the three men who killed them. But being young and impetuous Max has little skill, or worldly knowledge but through meeting gun salesman Jonas Cord (Brian Keith - The Rare Breed) he learns about the world and also how to shoot. From then on Max becomes so focussed on getting revenge everything he does, from learning to read, to finding work is all so that he can track down the men and kill them in retaliation.
The actual storyline, the concept of this young man, wet behind the ears becoming so focussed on getting revenge that over his journey he develops into a cold killer is intriguing. And the way it is presented to us as almost several smaller movies which take in each of the revenge killings as Max tracks down each of the men is a nice idea. It means that "Nevada Smith" has nice sections, each of which build up to a climatic ending before then moving on to the next part of the story. And as such each of these sections mixes drama with action, and also a mild dose of comedy, as we watch Max develop another skill before finally doing what he sets out to do.
But the thing is whilst the focus of the movie is Max and his development into a killer it struggles to really deliver that character exploration. Part of the issue is that director Henry Hathaway favours middle range and long range camera shots so whilst we get plenty of stunning back drops to various scenes he fails to show us the close up emotion of Max. For example when Max kills the first of the three men most of the action is shot from middle distance and as such feels a little messy and loses out on showing what Max is feeling at the time. And this goes on through out "Nevada Smith" meaning that a movie which should deliver an interesting look at the emotion of Max as he becomes this cold killer never quite achieves it. Although saying that it is often amusing to watch as Max learns the various skills such as shooting and reading so that he can find and kill the men.
It also has to be said that because "Nevada Smith" is split into these different sections some work much better than others. The opening section which culminates with Max discovering his murdered parents and dealing with it is beautifully shot. The next section as the naive young Max sets out with little plan or skill but ends up being taught how to shoot by cynical gun merchant Jonas Cord is entertaining through being light hearted. And then you get the first killing, which although not dark in mood is a contrast to the light heartedness which went before and in many ways works. But then things go wrong when Max goes after the next man who happens to be in prison in the middle of a swamp. It's a little bit absurd, too far fetched to be taken seriously. Thankfully the final section delivers more realism although seems rather generic, drawing on other westerns for various scenes.
Of course "Nevada Smith" is a Steve McQueen movie and for me personally it's not the greatest of McQueen's movies. The trouble is that due to Hathaway's direction, those medium range shots, you fail to see the emotional range of McQueen. You do get a sense of the rage, the anger as well as the single mindedness he has but it's only in small bits and that leaves a lot of time where McQueen is basically being just another cowboy. And I have to say it's a struggle in the early parts of the movie where everyone refers to Max as a boy because there is no way the McQueen could be mistaken for a boy even though he does a reasonable job of delivering the naivety of his character.
Aside from Steve McQueen "Nevada Smith" features many recognizable faces but frankly their performances for the most fail to impress. Martin Landau as Jesse Coe just doesn't come across as nasty enough as one the bad guys whilst Arthur Kennedy as Bill Bowdre is bogged down, quite literally, by the storyline which sees him in the swamp prison. The performances from the women such as Suzanne Pleshette as Pilar and Janet Margolin as Neesa are prone to over acting and Pat Hingle seems miscast as a prisoner called Big Foot. The best of the supporting performances comes from Brian Keith as the cynical gun merchant Jonas Cord and it's down to the almost light hearted nature of the storyline which makes it work. You get not only a sense of the friendship which forms between Cord and Max but almost that of a father and son and it brings out the best in both Brian Keith and Steve McQueen.
What this all boils down to is that "Nevada Smith" could have been a very good movie but ends up quite an average one. The actual idea of watching a naive young man turn into a cold killer is a good one and would have made for a good movie if it wasn't for director Henry Hathaway's style of direction which waters down the character exploration side of the movie. And it is this direction which ultimately turns "Nevada Smith" into an entertaining but average western which ends up feeling a little too long.
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