Monday, March 30, 2015

Film Review: EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973, Robert Aldrich)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 118 minutes.
Tag-line: "Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine Meet in the Fight of the Century!"
Notable Cast or Crew:  Lee Marvin (THE KILLERS, THE DELTA FORCE, THE DIRTY DOZEN), Ernest Borgnine (MARTY, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, THE DIRTY DOZEN), Keith Carradine (THE DUELLISTS, NASHVILLE), Charles Tyner (COOL HAND LUKE, HAROLD & MAUDE), Malcolm Atterbury (THE BIRDS, RIO BRAVO), Simon Oakland (PSYCHO, WEST SIDE STORY), Elisha Cook Jr. (ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE MALTESE FALCON), Sid Haig (SPIDER BABY, COFFY), and an uncredited Lance Henriksen (ALIENS, THE TERMINATOR).  Written by Christopher Knopf (20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, HELL BENT FOR LEATHER) and based on a short story by Jack London.  Directed by Robert Aldrich (WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, THE DIRTY DOZEN, KISS ME DEADLY).
Best One-liner: "You have as much a chance as a one-legged man at an asskicking contest!"

This movie's sleazier'n a bumfight in August, redder'n a hot poker, and madder'n a hobo gettin' whipped with a chain!  It's sweaty, dirty, and foamin' at the mouth.  The concept behind this film is as ridiculous as it is brilliant:  Ernest Borgnine is 'Shack'- a railroad man who'll risk his life to kill any bum who tries to hitch a free ride.

Lee Marvin is A-Number 1, a bum who lives by the bum's code, and will risk his life, just on principle, to hitch a free ride on any and every train.  
Keith Carradine is A-Number 1's protege who may or may not have what it takes to be "Emperor of the North Pole."

This movie is dripping with testosterone, tobacco juice, and blood; it calls hobos "hoboes" in an opening crawl that seems culled from a MAD MAX movie––

it features an uncredited Lance Henriksen (I think I blinked and missed him) and a young Sid Haig:

and the entire affair is as brutal as a 2x4 thwack to the guts.  And that thwack just might be accompanied by some gentle honkytonk piano.  Wait a second. Did I just see some street urchins get beaten with a live chicken by Lee Marvin?  You bet I did.

A statistically insignificant amount of animals and children were harmed in this production.

And wait for the scene where Lee, holding a live, purloined turkey, taunts a cop who asks him what he's doing with the bird.

Lee insists it's his pet dog, who's offended by the comparison to a turkey, and could the officer please...bark...nowThe now-terrified policeman quickly complies with some bow-wowing,

and Lee lets loose with a priceless facial expression that can only mean 'You'd better start barking better.'

I feel as if this is the movie that set the 'Sons of Lee Marvin' (a fan club formed by Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Jim Jarmusch, Iggy Pop, Neil Young, John Lurie) into motion.  I'd say it's a huge influence on Jarmusch's DEAD MAN, for one.

The whole thing leads up to a merciless conclusion––a no-holds-barred fight between Shack and A-Number 1 that involves hammers, spikes, axes, 2x4s, chains, and the train itself.  It's one of the most visceral battles in cinema.

It, and this entire film, are a credit to director Robert Aldrich (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, THE DIRTY DOZEN, KISS ME DEADLY)'s ability to merge action and character study; Lee Marvin's sheer, enduring, haggard presence; Ernest Borgnine's twisted, gnarled, vile energy; and the ability of all three to collaborate in a manner where somehow nothing strains your suspension of disbelief.  God bless this movie.  Five stars.

–Sean Gill

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