Blu-ray Review: Last Train From Gun Hill (1959)

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Originally purchased in 1954 by producer Hal Wallis as a potential western vehicle for either Burt Lancaster or Charlton Heston, although those efforts stalled, five years later, Wallis was able to see his dream of a big-screen adaptation of TV writer Les Crutchfield's thrilling story "Showdown" come true.

Sharing production duties with star Kirk Douglas's own company Bryna Productions, Hal Wallis reunited with the cast and crew of his 1957 Paramount hit "Gunfight at the OK Corral" two years later for the briskly paced, startlingly gritty, taut, high profile VistaVision release "Last Train From Gun Hill."

Directed by John Sturges and shot by gifted versatile cinematographer Charles Lang the exact same year he lensed "Some Like It Hot," he fills "Gun Hill" with a mixture of dark noir shadows and an at times luridly bright, flammable color scheme of reds, oranges, and yellows to almost expressionistic effect. This visual motif serves as an ingeniously bold yet still subtle depiction of the fiery aggression of its core cast of characters and helps the emotional core of the film remain ever-present from start to finish.

After U.S. Marshall Matt Morgan's Native American wife is raped and murdered by two young sadistic cowboys in front of their young son, the lawman (played by Kirk Douglas) vows to do whatever it takes to bring the killers to justice. Discovering their connection to his old friend Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), thanks to a distinctive saddle on one's horse that his son was able to use to escape the villains, Matt journeys to Craig's Gun Hill with his gun and badge, even though he's advised that those things won't be welcome there.

"You work for Craig Belden?" Matt asks when he gets off the train, before, in a half of a line that fans of 1993's "Tombstone" know very well, he lowers the boom. "You tell him I'm coming."

However, it seems that Quinn's Craig Belden is in for a rude wake-up call as well. Having been told by his son Rick (Earl Holliman) that his horse and saddle had been stolen by thieves and that the garish scratch Rick's suddenly sporting on his face came from a lusty encounter, once Matt arrives and asks his old friend for help, Craig realizes that his son and friend are the ones responsible for the heinous crime.

And when Matt comes to the same conclusion as Craig, the shocked but proud man implores Matt not to arrest Rick, warning him that he not only runs the entire town but also the police. Informing Craig that he aims to bring Rick and Lee back to face charges on that night's last train leaving from Gun Hill, Matt embarks upon a lonely search throughout the corrupt town to track them down. And soon enough, he deduces that the only thing the people of  Gun Hill value less than the life of a Native American is that of a Native American woman.

Although it's reminiscent of "High Noon" in Matt's one against the world quest, which, like "High Noon" manages to work in a female ally as well in the form of Carolyn James, the tale that "Last Train From Gun Hill" seems to have the most in common with is ultimately "3:10 to Yuma," based on the 1953 Elmore Leonard story.

Made into a film at Columbia Pictures in 1957 from director Delmer Daves (after which it was remade by James Mangold in 2007), fans of "Yuma" will see a lot of similarities between the plight of Matt and Van Heflin's in "Yuma" as well. And this is especially evident when a fair amount of action in "Hill" plays out at a hotel after Matt manages to capture and subdue Rick, despite knowing he's surrounded by gunmen ready to free Craig's son (which we saw in "Yuma" with Heflin and Glenn Ford) before they can board that train.

While "Gun Hill" admittedly places a good deal of its emphasis on action whereas "Yuma" involves far more scenes of mental chess played between the two men, "Hill" is still a psychologically thrilling work as it presents Matt and Craig as two flip-sides of the same coin who've grown further and further apart in their attitudes of right and wrong over the years.

Using the same type of approach he used to balance the moral, internal struggle of his characters with terse, tense, temper driven bursts of prideful masculine violence that he employed so perfectly in 1955's masterful "Bad Day at Black Rock," Sturges, along with his crew, lends a real sense of artistry to the film. Elevating it above its otherwise predictable "B" revenge western feel, the 94-minute movie not only flies right by but also helps foreshadow the career that the director would have in the early '60s, helming "The Magnificent Seven" (with some of this film's collaborators) and “The Great Escape” as well.

Given an impressively vibrant 6K transfer to Blu-ray (plus an HD digital copy) as part of the Paramount Presents series of titles, "Last Train From Gun Hill" might feel like something of a forgotten western from the era. But like Matt stalking through the alternating reds, oranges, yellows, and dark shadows in order to get his men before things ignite, this is one film that's well worth tracking down.

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