Experiments were designed to assess the mode of action of nitroprusside on isolated blood vessels and its relative potency on venous and arterial smooth muscle. Strips from dog blood vessels were mounted in an organ bath for isometric tension recording. Sodium nitroprusside (10(-5) M) depressed the contraction of saphenous vein strips caused by electric stimulation, tyramine, K+, Ba++, norepinephrine and acetylcholine. The depression of the norepinephrine-induced contractions also occurred in a Ca++- free medium and when Ca++ influx was inhibited by verapamil. Nitroprusside reduced the frequency of the spontaneous contractions of strips of portal-mesenteric veins. It depressed the contraction caused by norepinephrine in tibial artery strips more than in saphenous vein strips. Saphenous vein strips were incubated with (3H)norepinephrine and mounted for superfusion and isometric tension recording. Sodium nitroprusside (10(-5) M) had no effect on the basal efflux of 3H compounds. During electric stimulation, it did not change the output of (3H)norepinephrine but increased the outflow of deaminated and O-methylated metabolites. Thus sodium nitroprusside 1) has a direct effect on the smooth muscle cells which is independent of Ca++ influx, 2) depresses contractions of different types of vascular smooth muscle and 3) does not inhibit the release of norepinephrine from the nerve endings.