26 August 2007 | MisterWhiplash
a very fine western in due to its mounting complex look at justice and star power
Last Train from Gun Hill has the star power to help back up a storyline that is, on the surface, seemingly too straightforward: a Marshall (Kirk Douglas) finds that his wife has been killed. When he finds out that it is the son of a cattle baron (Anthony Quinn), despite his old friendship with the baron, he decides to bring the son to justice, holding him by gunpoint in the town hotel until the train comes to take them off to jail- while the baron has his men outside with their guns poised. There's a touchy element to who the son (played as a snidely little kid in Earl Holliman) killed, which was that the Marshall's wife was a Native American. But more impressive in the script, and through John Sturges's steadfast professionalism, is how there's the tension between law and the personal, the immediate draw of a gun draw to solve anything, and the bitterness of real vengeance (watch Douglas's Marshall tell Rick about how he'll be the only one to hear his own brain cry out as he hangs dying, perfectly acted).
Although it's likely that Douglas and Sturges were in or made better westerns, this is the kind of work that doesn't age in much a way that cheapens the questions poised or the invigorating style. It's a fairly violent film too, with a couple of deaths by the train tracks at night all the more effective from the taunting build-up and the pay-off in one shotgun fired off, and always the threat much more tension-filled than the result. Granted, when a big fire ends up happening, it looks very much like it's on a sound-stage and without a whole lot of suspense (save for the typical but strong 'who will get the gun first' moment between the Marshall and Rick in the bedroom), but it's the ambiance of the characters, the dread over this dangerous mix of volatile father and townsman- a better than average Quinn without being too hammy- and a good man driven to vengeance in bad-ass Douglas, and the determined woman (Carolyn Jones) that makes it so compelling. There's even a slight feeling of unpredictability in the situation- in a town where reputation trumps what is good and decent, but also where emotions run high as can be, the stakes are high for chance.
By the very end it feels like it should be more formulaic, and there are bits where the dialog does come off as brawny ol' western genre jargon (look simply at some of the quotes on the IMDb page as example). But if you happen to come across it on TV one Sunday afternoon, as I did, it's worth the time to sit and get absorbed by a well done star vehicle.