Judge Paul Corupe dishes out his own dimpleful of justice.
"But she was just an Indian squaw!"—Rick (Earl Holliman)
Despite the entertaining pairing of Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn, director John Sturges's Last Train from Gun Hill has inexplicably received very little attention in comparison to his other high-profile films, which include some of the greatest westerns of the mid-20th century—Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Magnificent Seven. A classic in its own right, Last Train from Gun Hill is truly ripe for rediscovery; a well-crafted film that, like Sturges's best-known work, hooks audiences in with a deceptively simple plot.
Facts of the Case
When his Indian squaw wife (Ziva Rodann, Three Nuts in Search of a Bolt) is violently raped and murdered by a pair of ruthless cowboys, alliterative hero Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas, Spartacus) is forced to deal out a dimpleful of frontier justice. At the crime scene he recognizes a horse saddle that belongs to Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek), an old friend turned cattle baron who lives in the nearby town of Gun Hill. Matt figures it was a couple of Belden's men who did the deed, and he's right—he arrives in Gun Hill for some answers just as Craig notes that his son Rick (Earl Holliman, Forbidden Planet) has reappeared in town sporting a deep fingernail gash across one cheek. The truth dawns on Craig when Matt returns his saddle and tells his sad story, but blood runs deeper than friendship, and he refuses to give up his only son. Craig warns Rick and his partner-in-crime Lee Smithers (Brian G. Hutton) to lay low, but Matt still manages to apprehend the arrogant cowpoke. Holed up in a hotel room, Matt must fight off the ambush attempts of Craig and his gang until the 9:00 train home arrives. With the help of saloon girl Linda (Carolyn Jones, The Addams Family), Matt formulates a daring plan to catch his train and put Rick on the stand for his vile murder.
Last Train from Gun Hill is a rare breed of film, a genre exercise that touches on serious subjects such as loyalty, friendship, and racism while delivering all the gunplay, brutality, and action set-pieces that western fans have grown to love. Like an Old West episode of Law and Order, the first half of the film is a tumbleweed whodunit with Matt questioning an increasingly uncooperative Craig and wresting answers out of a town almost completely in the pocket of the wealthy cattle baron. Once the determined lawmen captures Rick in an exciting take-down at a busy saloon, though, the film significantly shifts gears and becomes an escape tale that all but dispenses with the theme of divided loyalty. Matt himself goes from the hunter to the hunted, as the townsfolk line the streets to witness what promises to be a brutal slaughter by Craig and his gang.
Of course, it doesn't take long to realize that Craig's attempts to rescue his son will not end once Matt is safely out of Gun Hill, and as such, the plot paints its wagon into something of a corner. Even though Matt rejects the six-gun justice proposed by his wife's old Indian chief father, it becomes apparent that the only thing that can truly bury this conflict is a high body count. Seasoned western fans will easily see the winner-take-all shoot-out on the horizon, but even they might be surprised by the train station climax, which manages to pack in enough twists to keep Last Train from Gun Hill as satisfying and flavorful as a warmed-over bowl of cowboy stew.
Known for his excellent use of locations, Sturges splashes his action across a little-populated Old West full of breathtaking vistas lovingly captured in the VistaVision widescreen process. Keeping the camera low to the ground to flaunt the expansive sky and distant cool blue mountains, Last Train from Gun Hill is chock full of beautiful settings that truly enhance the atmosphere and action on screen.
Both Quinn and Douglas ante up forceful performances as the dueling duo, who once rode together on the wrong side of the law. Douglas is introduced as an aging Marshal who passes the lazy days by regaling local children with his past exploits, and he brings a cool professionalism to the role. Matt never lets his desire for revenge dictate his actions, and always plans to give Rick a fair trial. Although callous and scheming, Quinn's villain remains sympathetic as a man who doesn't defend Rick's actions, but wants to protect him anyways. Carolyn Jones is also good, but seemingly underused, as the vengeful girl who wants to see the town slip a little out of Craig Belden's grip. Perhaps she never matures into a legitimate love interest for Matt out of respect for his recently deceased wife, and as a result, her character becomes almost entirely incidental to the story.
Last Train from Gun Hill makes its digital debut with a transfer like a comfortable old saddle—a little trail-worn, but sufficient for the long ride into town. Filmed in Technicolor, the hues here are generally bright and strong, which goes a long way in offsetting the minor scratches and dirt that appear throughout the film. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is a bit of a mixed bag as well, with dialogue resonating loud and clear while Dimitri Tiomkin's score comes off predictably anemic, a disappointment attributable to the age of the film. Par for the course on Paramount library releases, Last Train from Gun Hill is completely bereft of extra features.
Paramount's decidedly adequate edition really does this film no favors, but Last Train from Gun Hill is a solid, action-packed oater that belongs in the collection of any serious classic western fan. Sturges' excellent direction and some decent performances from Quinn and Douglas make this a DVD worth checking out.
Paramount is invited to a necktie party for their continued release of barebones catalogue titles.
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