Half breed Max Sand (Steve McQueen) has little truck with the notion that revenge is a dish best served cold. But he’s too young and raw, far from Lee Marvin’s callous killer in Point Blank (1969), to properly avenge the slaughter of his family by three outlaws.
This is a coming-of-age tale with a distinct difference. Max’s development includes, apart from initiation into sex of course, learning to read and write so he can make sense of signposts in order to track down the murderers and receiving tuition from gunsmith Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) so that he can at least loose off some shots without doing himself damage. Vengeance burns so deep that he even stages a bumbled robbery so he can be sent to the prison where the second of his targets is incarcerated. Now that’s dedication for you. And along the way he learns the most important lesson of all, how to live, and not destroy himself through vengeance.
Even so, all Cord’s tuition counts for nought when Max needs a knife to dispatch his first victim Coe (Martin Landau). And he’s not yet so slick with a weapon to avoid serious injury himself. Kiowa saloon girl Neesa (Janet Margolin) nurses him back to health at her tribe’s camp. They become lovers but he rejects the wisdom of the elders and the opportunity to make a life with her.
Unfortunately, Bowdre (Arthur Kennedy) is a jailbird. And worse, held prisoner in a swamp. Probably the worst bank robbery ever committed sends Nevada there. Max enrols another woman, Cajun Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette) working in nearby rice fields – fraternisation between the jailbirds and these women permitted – to steal a boat to help him and Bowdre escape. Bowdre gets his and this time it’s Pilar who is the collateral damage.
A genuine outlaw now, Max has no trouble joining a band of robbers headed by Fitch (Karl Malden), the final prey. By now calling himself Nevada Smith, Max’s plans are thrown into confusion when it becomes apparent Fitch is aware of his true identity. A surprise ending is on the cards whichever way you cut it, and especially thrilling since it occurs during a well-planned gold bullion robbery.
It’s a film of two parts but divided into three if you like, the unusual swamp setting fitting in between two sections of more straightforward western. Though in the hands of director Henry Hathaway (True Grit, 1969), there is little that’s so straightforward given his mastery of the widescreen and his hallmark extreme long shot. He’s capable of moving from the extreme violence of the vicious murder and rape of Max’s mother to the son’s discovery of the bodies shown just through Max’s physical reaction. And there’s some irony at play, too: gold triggers slaughter and climax; mental dereliction not as feared as its physical counterpart.
Although Hathaway was a true veteran, he was not best known for westerns in the manner of John Ford, more at home with film noir (Kiss of Death, 1947), war (The Desert Fox, 1951) and big-budget pictures like Niagara (1954) with Marilyn Monroe and Legend of the Lost (1957) teaming John Wayne and Sophia Loren. In a 30-year career he had only made three westerns of note – The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), Rawhide (1951) and Garden of Evil (1954). So it was something of a surprise that in the 1960s over half his output was in the western genre. And unlike Ford and Howard Hawks who stuck to the formula of action within a defined community, Hathaway tended towards films of adventure, where the main character, often of a somewhat shady disposition, wandered far and wide.
Steve McQueen (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965) carries the picture with some aplomb, moving deftly from the wet-behind-the-ears youngster to a clever and calculated killer and still retaining enough humanity to enjoy a romantic dalliance. There’s enough action here to satisfy McQueen’s fans spoiled by The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) and for those who had come to appreciate his acting plenty to enjoy. This and The Cincinnati Kid, where perforce as a poker player, he had to do a great deal of brooding, solidified his screen persona, a star you can’t keep your eyes off, wondering what on earth is going on in his mind. As much as he’s playing a character finding his feet, this is McQueen at very nearly the top of his game.
Brian Keith (The Rare Breed, 1966) is the pick of the support, adding a little softness to his usual more hard-nosed screen characters. The villains – Karl Malden (The Cincinnati Kid), Martin Landau (The Hallelujah Trail, 1965) and Arthur Kennedy (Claudelle Inglish, 1961) – are all good in their own different ways, and in the hands of excellent actors, easily differentiated. Suzanne Pleshette (Fate is the Hunter, 1964) shines in a too-brief role.
The sterling supporting cast includes Janet Margolin (Bus Riley’s Back in Town, 1965), Pat Hingle (Sol Madrid, 1968) and Raf Vallone (The Secret Invasion, 1964). John Michael Hayes (Harlow, 1965) fashioned the screenplay from The Carpetbaggers by Harold Robbins.
Although Hollywood had been prone to sequels – Father’s Little Dividend (1951) following Father of the Bride (1950), Return to Peyton Place (1961), Return of the Seven (1966) etc – there had been no perceived market for prequels, so this was something of a first, Alan Ladd having essayed an older and considerably more sophisticated Nevada Smith in the 1964 film of Harold Robbins bestseller.