For just over a year, the Paramount Presents premiere home video label from Paramount Pictures continues to restore and release films from within their deep well of material. It began with Fatal Attraction (1987), King Creole (1958), and To Catch a Thief (1955) and has continued on with such releases as Ghost (1990), The Haunting (1999), Roman Holiday (1953), and Airplane! (1980). Shunning no genre and not afraid to restore some of their lesser received films, Paramount continues this tradition with #18, Last Train from Gun Hill (1959), directed by John Sturges (The Great Escape/The Magnificent Seven) and starring Kirk Douglas (Spartacus), Anthony Quinn (Lust for Life), and Carolyn Jones (The Addams Family). Restored from a 6K transfer, Last Train from Gun Hill makes its Blu-ray debut in spectacular fashion.
One fateful day, as Catherine Morgan (Ziva Rodann) is driving her son Petey (Lars Henderson) home, they are beset upon by two men, Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) and Lee Smithers (Brian G. Hutton). Petey gets away and is able to get his lawman father, Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), but they arrive too late to catch the culprits or save his mother. With justice on his mind, Morgan sets off for Gun Hill, a town controlled by Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), an old friend and former riding partner. What’s, at first, a glorious happy reunion turns tense as both Morgan and Belden realize what’s transpired and how the two men are connected to the incident. Morgan has promised to be on the 9pm train out of Gun Hill that night, intent to take the two men with him, which pits the old friends against each other as they try to preserve their respective families through the lens of Old West justice.
Described as an adult western, the 95-minute tale is not for the faint of heart as it immediately gets to the plot without sparing a second, enabling the drama to develop a rolling boil as tensions build straight to the final moments of the film. In fact, it’s quite surprising how quickly and violently the film begins, even if the audience is shown everything. What we see is enough to make blood run cold, not just for what transpires, but for how often the mentality that allowed the characters to do this transcends celluloid into real life. When confronted with his actions, Holliman’s Rick declares that he didn’t know the woman was someone’s wife, he thought she was “just some squaw.” As though the women herself possessed not an ounce of agency or autonomy without connection to a man or that her genealogy somehow made her inferior. This is, perhaps, what sets Morgan apart from the other characters, his language and choices belie not merely a man of integrity, but someone who’s made terrible choices but decided to make good. Thus all are treated with respect, even the people who killed his wife. To a degree, of course. This being a first-time watch, I couldn’t help but see its influence on the first John Wick film wherein the protagonist and antagonist are connected by their pasts and must battle due to a transgression of the son. The amazing difference is where John Wick dazzles as it goes from one fight scene to another, never losing the audience’s interest along the way, Last Train is built around dialogue, not action. Things happen, like there’s a shootout in a bar or holing up trapped in a hotel, yet it’s not action-driven and still keeps you hooked. Sturges knew how to milk every moment of his film and modern audiences will likely appreciate that which day-date audiences did not.
Regarding the restoration itself, it’ll likely change quite a few minds about what a western can look and feel like. Thanks to the technical approach of VistaVision (we’ll get to this in a moment), there’s more data to pull from the negative, enabling the Blu-ray to be remastered from a 6K transfer. It’s always easier to maintain a clear and brilliant image when you shrink data versus upscaling, so starting from such a girth of data only increases the quality of what can be offered on the Blu-ray over other 4K restorations. One thing that occasionally occurred is a strange phantom digital trail when characters would make sudden movements. It’s not totally distracting and doesn’t occur enough for it to detract from the overall restoration, but it was noticeable enough to disrupt the immersion of the story.
The bonus features, like most Paramount Presents releases, are light, featuring only a new featurette from film historian and critic Leonard Maltin, as well as the original theatrical trailer. If you’re coming to Last Train fresh, the featurette led by Maltin is fascinating. He breaks down the technical aspects of the film, like how the VistaVision imprint from Paramount used a higher resolution 1.5:1 ratio, enabling more information to be stored on the negative than the standard 1:37:1 academy ratio, thereby delivering a more beautiful image for the time. He also breaks down the context of the film relative to director Sturges and actors Douglas, Quinn, Jones, and Holliman. There are moments in the featurette that feel less like insider knowledge and more like inference or gossip, but that’s more due to the cattiness that occurred between Douglas and Quinn on the shoot and less to Maltin himself. In short, actors are people too and are prone to being just as fallible as anyone. But amid all that is some fascinating information on how Jones was pigeon-holed as a character actor, how Douglas’s actor-mentality worked to his advantage here, and plenty of other bits that make watching the brief featurette worth the journey.
If you know someone who’s been reticent to check out westerns, but they enjoy modern revenge dramas, introduce them to Last Train from Gun Hill. It’s notable for the cast, each of which make the most out of their material, offering performances that aren’t awards-worthy yet are captivating nonetheless. It’s also notable for the darkness lingering on the edges of the story created by Less Crutchfield (Showdown) and adapting screenwriter James Poe (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) for telling us a story where no one is truly innocent, but that the next right choice makes the difference between being an angel or a demon. The Last Train is available now. Make sure you’re on it.
Last Train From Gun Hill Special Features
- Filmmaker Focus with film historian Leonard Maltin (7:23)
- Original Theatrical Trailer
Available on Blu-ray and digital June 15th, 2021.