U.S. Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas) finds his Indian wife raped and murdered. The only clue to her assailant's identity is an abandoned silver saddle. He instantly realizes one of the two men responsible is Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) who so happens to be the son of powerful cattle baron Craig Beldon (Anthony Quinn), a man who was not only Matt's best friend but once saved his life. Arriving in the town of Gun Hill where Craig has an iron grip around everyone and everything, Matt finds his former friend unsurprisingly reluctant to hand over his only son. But Matt refuses to back down. Instead he holds Rick hostage in his hotel room and even as Craig whips up an armed mob, holds his ground waiting for the nine o'clock train out of Gun Hill.
One imagines Poe's contribution was to amp up the psychological dimensions as the film becomes as much a conflict over whose anguish weighs more heavily, Matt's righteous anger over his wife's rape and murder versus Craig's burning need to protect his son, as it is about right and wrong. Poe's meaty script is well served by the powerhouse performances of two of Hollywood's most masculine stars. Kirk Douglas has a charming intro where he enthralls some little boys with a tall tale about facing an outlaw gang single-handed (which, in light of what ensues, is probably not so exaggerated after all) then turns on a dime conveying palpable rage and anguish for his slain wife. Few actors could go toe-to-toe with Douglas when he was firing on all cylinders but Anthony Quinn was certainly one of them. Quinn's puffed-up patriarch is a swaggering macho who puts pride above morality and arguably even family. In an early scene he instructs Rick to punch out anyone who insults a Beldon. Poe's script neatly interweaves a theme of fathers and sons as Matt's worry that his son has been psychologically damaged on witnessing his mother's fate dovetails with Craig's slow realization he has raised his own motherless boy to be a reprobate.
If Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn are moral opposites, albeit of psychological complexity, then bridging the gap is the lovely Carolyn Jones as a character driven to do the right thing in spite of herself. She plays Linda, Craig's ostensible girlfriend, a real hard-boiled dame able to scare off an unwanted admirer with a harsh stare, yet who nonetheless suffers under the thumb of a man who believes who can sweet-talk or brutalize her as he pleases. While Jones' role as Morticia Addams in The Addams Family gave her TV immortality, she remains one of the most underrated actresses in cinema. For further proof check out her multifaceted turn as the tragic 'bad girl' opposite Elvis Presley in his finest film outing King Creole (1958). Here she brings a welcome feminine counterpoint to all that testosterone-fueled posturing and arguably has the most affecting character arc. Also among the supporting players are a moustachioed Brad Dexter, who went on to confound generations of pub quiz pundits as that-one-you-can't-remember in Sturges' The Magnificent Seven (1960), and Brian G. Hutton future ace director of among others Where Eagles Dare (1969).
A terrific action director, Sturges imbues Last Train from Gun Hill with the same dramatic punch and machine-gun pace of his better known classics. As in his earlier Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), the plot strands a lone representative of justice in a town where the adversary is all powerful and includes an anti-racist element. Throughout the film several characters maintain they cannot see why Matt is so worked up about a dead Indian squaw, even if she was his wife. To which he responds with a hearty and richly deserved punch in the face. Once Matt is holed up in his hotel room with Rick as his hostage the suspense remains taut yet Sturges never loses sight of the film's moral dimension right through a finale both exciting and achingly sad.