Saturday, January 23, 2010

Last Train from Gun Hill

This 1959 movie, starring Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn and Earl Holliman, is a psychological Western that reminded me of 3:10 from Yuma in many ways. The original version of that movie came out in 1957 so perhaps it had some influence on this one. Or maybe it's just that the themes explored in Last Train from Gun Hill are common to Westerns: revenge, betrayal, one man against many, flawed characters trying to live their lives as best they can.

In this movie, Rick Belden (Earl Holliman) is the son of rancher Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn) of Gun Hill, whose best friend, Marshal Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), whom he hasn't seen in years, learns that his Indian wife has been raped and murdered. One thing leads to another and Rick is captured by Matt, who wants to take him back to his town to face justice. Holliman's character is not a nice person; in fact, he is a lying, snivelling coward. On the other hand, his father is a bully.

There are some nice character-establishing scenes between the two early in the movie. There's also a woman (isn't there always?!) of questionable repute, who plays a pivotal role in Last Train from Gun Hill. Much of the reason I liked this movie was due to how the characters tried to outwit each other, through their words as well as their actions. And there is plenty of action to go along with the talking.

Earl Holliman is great in Last Train from Gun Hill. If I hadn't recognized him, I wouldn't have known him from his voice. But if you look closely, at one point you can see him hitching up his pants, just like Wheat! Now I'm going to have to watch more of his films to see if that's an Earl Holliman mannerism. There's a scene where Kirk Douglas has him handcuffed to a bed in a hotel room and is describing what will happen to him after his trial--it's pretty chilling due to the very effective delivery of the lines. It made me think that if Heyes could have said that to Fred Philpott in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry, Fred would have very quickly changed his mind about wanting to go through with the hanging. And it's no wonder Jim Stokely in Something to Get Hung About was desperate to have someone believe he didn't kill Henderson.

A couple more tie-ins to ASJ: When Matt and Craig are first chatting with each other and reminiscing about old times, Craig says, " Who'd ever think you'd turn out to be a marshal?" And Matt replies, "I finally figured out the other side didn't pay." Of course that reminded me of Lom and the boys in The Pilot. The other scene was later in the movie, when several men are shown playing cards in a saloon, and one of them makes a reference to playing "Red Dog;" naturally, I immediately thought of the eponymously-named episode!

One scene I especially liked was when Matt goes to the sheriff's office in Gun Hill to tell him what he's planning on doing. The sheriff is uncooperative and finally Matt says, "I'm calling you yellow." The sheriff says, "That's your privilege." I can kind of see Kid saying that in order to avoid a gunfight, or maybe it's more likely Heyes would resort to a line like that. Either way, I may include it in a fanfic story at some point!

Last Train from Gun Hill held my interest from start to finish, with a climax and ending that were something of a surprise. There are no bonus features on the DVD, so at 94 minutes in length, watching this movie is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon or evening.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cowboys Full

This 427-page book by James Mcmanus, published in 2009, with 44 pages of end notes, a bibliography, an extensive glossary, and a 24-page index, is all about poker. There are fifty-two chapters altogether. The ISBN is 978-374-29924-8. The connection to ASJ is obvious but the title itself, which is a poker term meaning a full house that includes three kings, was enough to pique my interest.

This is not a how-to book that explains the rules of poker. Instead, it is an exhaustive history of the game that begins, after the first chapter's general introduction, by examining the evidence of gambling in prehistoric times. I found his analyses of early human behavior condescending rather than amusing but the factual information provided was interesting.

McManus moves on to discuss the origins of poker itself, and this section of the book is absorbing. From early games of chance in Europe in the Middle Ages called brag, poch, and poque, these games made their way in the 18th century to what became America. The game evolved and eventually became known as poker. Descriptions of how the game was played in the 18th and 19th centuries, and who played it, are fascinating.

In addition to numerous first-hand accounts, the author provides a multitude of stories culled from period books and newspapers that well illustrate the unsavory aspects of poker. Unfortunately, this history only takes readers through one-third of the book.

The remaining pages describe poker in the 20th and 21st centuries. I guess I'm not a true aficionado--since although I learned how to play as a child, I don't rush to watch poker on TV whenever it is broadcast--because I found the chapters relating the minute details of the World Series of Poker pretty boring. In fact, I glossed over the last one hundred or so pages of the book because I was not interested in who won the WSOP (or its rival tournaments), what hands the winners had or how much money they won.

Throughout the book, McManus connects the strategies used in poker to explain why and how national and international events and incidents occurred. He describes the poker habits of all the 20th century US presidents and how the way they played poker influenced how they reacted on the world stage.

This is often interesting but can sometimes be a stretch. I'm not sure how much Lyndon Johnson's attitude in poker games really had to do with his policy towards the Vietnam War, for example. Nevertheless, the author does prove his contention that poker is the quintessential American game because it most accurately reflects the spirit and history of America and Americans.