The title, "Last Train From Gun Hill," tells you so much about this wonderful film; a race against time, a sense of impending doom, something bad's gonna happen... you betcha!
That this film, one of my favorites from the 50's, is based around a somewhat unlikely scenario, plus a monstrous coincidence that no bookie in Vegas would give you odds on, doesn't matter. These are just what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "McGuffin," a device or prop about which to arrange the action, and let the characters play out their stories.
It stars two powerful actors at the very top of their form; Kirk Douglas as "Marshal Matt Morgan," and Anthony Quinn as "Craig Belden." Morgan is by the book, straight as an arrow, incorruptible, the very personification of moral rectitude, and Belden is a rancher of the old school, he's had to fight tooth and nail for everything he has. The two men are old friends from way-back, each as unbending and unforgiving, in their own way, as the other.
The third major player in this drama is "Rick Belden," Craig's son, superbly played by Earl Holliman, a character the polar-opposite of his father. A weakling, braggart, coward, and a boor, everything he has, from the clothes on his back, to the money in his pocket, to the "friends" who ride with him and buy him whisky, he has for one reason, and one reason only... his last name is Belden!
Director John Sturges doesn't waste any time in setting events in motion; a young Native American woman with a child beside her is riding a horse and buggy through the countryside. She passes three cowpokes making camp, they watch as she goes by, exchange knowing looks, then set off in pursuit, calling out that they just want a little fun as they surround the buggy.
Fearful for herself and her son, the young woman lashes out with a whip and cuts a gash in the cheek of the ringleader, then whips the horse into a gallop, which results in the buggy turning over. The cowboys close in with the ringleader nursing his cut face; the woman tells her son to go for help as she backs away...
The boy returns with help all right, the town Marshal, Matt Morgan! He calls the boy by his first name and searches desperately for the young woman, and you think to yourself, "My, but he's a conscientious Marshal!" And here's that unlikely scenario I mentioned at the beginning of this review, the young Indian woman and her son aren't just town residents, they're Mogan's wife and child!!!
And here comes that coincidence that would freak out the most hardened of Vegas bookies; after discovering his wife's body, Morgan, channeling his grief and rage into finding her rapists/murderers, for the first time examines the horse his son was riding. Sporting an expensive silver-tooled saddle, the horse wears the brand of his old friend... Craig Belden!!!
So, Morgan heads off to "Gun Hill," saddle in tow, to see his old friend. Their first scene together is superb, they share a drink and discuss old times, the way men do. Then Morgan drops his bombshell; Craig's saddle and horse were found at the scene of his wife's rape and murder, he also tells him the culprit will have a pretty good scar on his cheek from the buggy whip!
Craig is genuinely horrified, he saw the scar, and Rick laughed it off, saying it was just some "fun" with a saloon girl that got out of hand. Now he knows that his son is a rapist and a murderer... and because of his reaction, so does Morgan.
Belden begs Morgan to let it go, he's sorry, it must have been an accident, and Rick is his only son, all he has left after his wife died many years ago. Morgan won't, CAN'T, let it go, and you can tell that even if the victim had been a complete stranger to him, his reaction would be the same; this sets up the rest of the film, and the deadly conflict that will engulf all three men.
Douglas, Quinn and Holliman all give excellent performances. Douglas is superb playing conflicted characters, and there's a key scene where Morgan's seething hatred of Rick explodes into physical violence. You see the internal struggle as Morgan fights to choke down his emotions, to stop himself from taking the man's life with his bare hands, and instead coldly describes what's going to happen to Rick when they put a rope around his neck and hang him.
Quinn has a role he can similarly sink his teeth into, and he does! Although less sympathetic a character than Morgan, Craig is a man you can almost feel sorry for. Proud of all he has achieved, and desperately wanting to be proud of his only son and heir, he knows Rick is a weakling and a coward, just as he knows he's partly to blame. When he faces Rick for the first time after discovering the truth, there's an electric tension in the air; Rick approaches his father, ready with more lies and evasions, and Craig turns his back and walks away. He's holding a pair of heavy work gloves, and you half expect him to turn and lash out at his son in disgust and despair.
Holliman has a thankless task, Rick has absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever, and he plays the part to the hilt. Whining, wheedling, lying and bullying, this is a character you can love to hate! There's also a terrific supporting performance from Carolyn Jones, TV's original "Morticia Addams," as "Linda," Craig's - sometimes abused?! -girlfriend.
Even with its somewhat contrived set-up, this is still a film I can recommend highly; Sturges and his stars do a first class job!