Monday, July 12, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Last Train from Gun Hill" (1959)


There's a surprising amount of flesh and steel in "Last Train from Gun Hill," a largely forgotten Western that builds up to a real-time bloodletting in the mold of "High Noon" and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." The latter was also directed by John Sturges and starred Kirk Douglas, and even much of the crew and background cast tagged along again.

There is not one but two scenes featuring topless women, albeit carefully obscured for Production Code compliance, including one offscreen rape. They actually use the word "rape" in the movie, which is in itself pretty astonishing for 1959.

Douglas' character, Marshal Matt Morgan, is notably hard-bitten and cunning, essentially taking a young man hostage and threatening to murder him. Though Morgan professes to never have killed an unarmed man, he certainly seems prepared to do just that, holding a double-barreled shotgun under his quarry's chin as he marches the lad down the titular town's dusty streets in the film's signature penultimate sequence.

It's now out in a splendid remastered Blu-ray from Paramount that's well worth checking out. The VistaVision colors are achingly vibrant and the screen image is as crisp as the day it hit theaters. A first-class restoration.

Morgan's best friend is Craig Belden, played by the immeasurable Anthony Quinn. It's suggested they rode together on the wrong side of the law back in the day. Now, in the fading years of the Wild West when things have become much calmer and gunplay unfamiliar, they find themselves become aging relics: one the upstanding lawman, the other the uncompromising cattle baron who essentially owns the town.

In a by-then familiar switcheroo on cinematic tropes, it is Morgan who wears the black hat and coat, while Belden is outfitted in an unassuming blue shirt, tan leather vest and white Stetson. If you knew nothing of the movie and saw photos of their get-ups, you'd assume their roles were opposite.

It's interesting that the script by James Poe, based on a story by Les Crutchfield, takes pains not to portray Belden as a maniacal dictator or Morgan as a pure-hearted do-gooder. Each in their own way is hidebound by their ethos as self-made individualists, and their inability to bend to changing times sets up their inevitable confrontation.

The story is set into motion when Morgan's wife, a Cherokee woman (played, sigh, by Israeli-Amerian actress Ziva Rodann), is brutally murdered by a pair of drunken cowboys while she is driving her 9-year-old son, Petey (Lars Henderson) home to their quiet town of Pauley. She manages to lay open one of her attacker's cheeks with the whip. The boy takes the killer's horse and rides back to tell all to his pa, the marshal.

The saddle is a handsome black-and-silver job with the CB brand Morgan recognizes as his friend's. Assuming the horse was stolen, he takes the train to Gun Hill with a pair of John Doe warrants in his pocket. He goes to see Belden, and their reuniting is both bittersweet and genuinely heartwarming, old range riders now widowers -- one recent and raw, the other long ago.

Both men quickly surmise, though, that the culprit with the cheek scar is Belden's own son, Rick (Earl Holliman), a disappointing offspring who the rich man clings to with a domineering sort of love-shame hybrid. Belden offers to let Morgan have the other man, Lee Smithers (Brian Hutton), but forbids him to arrest Rick.

Now, if Belden & Son had half a brain between them, they'd quickly decide it best for the young scallywag to hole up at their ranch, with the solitary Morgan having no chance to plow through Belden's several dozen gunmen to apprehend him. But then we wouldn't have a movie, so of course he traipses off to Gun Hill to gamble and drink, where he is quickly knocked out and taken captive by Morgan. He handcuffs Rick to the bed of a hotel room, awaiting the 9 o'clock late train back to Pauley.

At this point, the movie settles into a slow-burn affair with Belden and his toughs staking out Morgan in the hotel, alternating between exchanges of dialogue and bullets. 

There seems no possible way Morgan can get Rick to the train, with literally the entire town against him. The local lawman, Bartlett (Walter Sande), not only refuses to assist Morgan, he actually goes so far as to refuse to wear a badge or acknowledge he is the sheriff, arguing for a "long view" of the law that doesn't encompass crossing Belden.

The actual mechanics of the standoff aren't terribly interesting. What is is that neither man ever for a second considers backing away one inch from his position. Morgan is clearly motivated as much by a sense of personal revenge as duty to the law, even at one point musing that he'll leave Lee behind if he has to in order to see Rick to the hangman.

Belden, for his part, seems plainly confused and hurt that his best friend -- the only man in the territory he considers his equal -- would try to take his son away from him. The life of an Indian woman doesn't tip the scales one iota against the blood of his only child. Belden doesn't want to kill Morgan, but sees no other way if he continues on his stubborn path.

The confounding variable is Carolyn Jones as Linda, Belden's saloon worker (prostitute?) turned estranged mistress. She bumps into Morgan on the train ride back to Gun Hill and instantly takes a shine to him. It turns out she's just returned from an extended hospital stay resulting from Belden's latest beating, apparently after Rick was spreading lies about her nocturnal activities.

I knew I recognized Jones from somewhere, with her impossibly big eyes and narrow waist, and finally learned she played Morticia Addams in the original "The Addams Family" show that debuted five years later.

The attraction between Linda and Morgan is palpable, so it's no surprise when she helps him by acting as go-between with Belden, and even sneaks him the shotgun previously mentioned. She also clearly still has conflicting feelings for Belden, so it's something of a low-wattage love triangle.

(Again with my literalist quibbles: Morgan asks her for a shotgun, saying he needs one for what he has to do. But why wouldn't the same scenario of him force-marching Rick to the train station work if it was a six-shooter snugged up under his jaw instead of a double-barrel? The unsatisfying answer: because then we wouldn't get that great visual, or have something to drive the Morgan-Belden-Linda dynamic.)

Aside from the cowardly sheriff, there aren't a ton of notable supporting characters. Val Avery plays Steve, bartender at one of Belden's saloons, friend to Linda and someone sensible enough to acknowledge that the cattleman's rule is unjust but he isn't the one to oppose it. Beero (Brad Dexter) is Belden's cigar-chomping right-hand man, performing whatever duties required including besting Rick in a fistfight at his boss' behest.

Holliman as Rick isn't give a lot to do but bellyache and beg. He isn't necessarily an evil kid, just a weak soul spoiled and bullied by his father. We're not sad to see him go, the victim of a stray bullet from Lee, though his death prompts Belden to demand a quick-draw duel with Morgan, who seems positively weary at the prospect.

I admired a lot of things about this film, and in fact was left wanting more. At just a hair over 90 minutes, the movie moves very quickly through its plot steps without a lot of Dosey Doeing around into deep character investigation. I would've loved to see some flashback sequences of the two rivals as younger men, including the incident referenced several times where Belden saved Morgan's life.

That could have signified the strength of their bond, rather than just alluding to it, and maybe also hinted at early indications of the potential for a fallout... perhaps around the time they parted ways.

"Last Train from Gun Hill" is still a solid Western, rather daring for its time, one that relies more on telling than showing its bitter, shadowy heart.


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