Smith’s blood soaked finalé, including moments of extreme (by 1975 standards) gore, required action by director Martin Scorsese less the MPAA require an X rating. So, with some post-production timing tweaks, the splatter was toned down and a modern day classic was born. Star Robert DeNiro wanted a menacing Mowhawk for the last act, so Smith was asked to create a skull cap to deal with the dilemma of the actor simultaneously shooting 1900 in Italy as well as his next role in The Last Tycoon. He also created a grim, gritty urban feel to the overall look of the film which continues to resonate some 40 years later.
A big screen adaptation of famed film and TV writer Paddy Cheyefsky’s only novel was, arguably, a troubled production. Original director Arthur Penn resigned as did F/X whiz John Dykstra after clashing with the notoriously touchy scribe. Replacement Ken Russell stated that he touched virtually nothing in Cheyefsky’s script and yet the author remained impossible to please. Indeed, he hated this new director’s approach just as much, and tried to have him removed, as well. As for Smith, he worked extremely hard at bringing the material’s ideas to life. After all the turmoil, his efforts remain one of the high points of a film fraught with behind the scenes drama.
Arthur Penn took on Thomas Berger’s 1964 novel about a 110-year-old member of Gen. George Custer’s scouting team who recounts his days in the Wild Wild West. Originally, star Dustin Hoffman was to play the book’s age, but Smith wanted to push the boundaries. With meticulous care, he sculpted a realistic prosthetic, as well as fake eyelids what would blink along with the actor. The result often overshadowed the film itself, with Hoffman spending hours in his trailer screaming his head off to get the right grizzled old voice for the character. Still, this is a fun revisionist Western.
All those iconic kills. The look of Marlon Brando’s Don Corleone. Michael’s broken jaw. Smith’s work on both installments of this classic American epic helped define the post-modern era, especially the growing reliance on realistic violence. Thanks to some ingenuity on his part, Smith came up with a way to create more horrific bullet wounds and head shots, and it wasn’t easy. Brando refused to allow Smith to use his typical aging process on him, so the make-up man had to drag out all the tricks in his extensive playbook to realize the character as he grew older. Masterful work all around.
The reason Smith’s work on this classic horror film tops the list is simple. The movie was made over 40 years ago, and yet the F/X and their impact remain virtually unchanged. Sure, a more cynical, CG appreciating youth might scoff at his efforts, but this remains one of the best, most disturbing films ever made, and Smith is part of the reason why. From turning Linda Blair’s Regan MacNeil from a cute young girl into an evil demonic presence, to aging Max von Sydow from 44 to 74, there’s genius and a genuine love of craft in every single scare-inducing moment.