Written by / 6/02/2016 / No comments / , , , , , ,

MARVIN VS BORGNINE IN 'EMPEROR OF THE NORTH'

Lee Marvin & Robert Carradine in this Robert Alrich action flick
Arguably, director Robert Aldrich turned in his best work over a decade before he got down and DIRTY DOZEN...

That is, the entire Film Noir genre was practically named after his severe yet subdued, intensely claustrophobic KISS ME DEADLY, adding cult status with the risky thriller WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, but it's a movie like EMPEROR OF THE NORTH, pitting a folk-hero hobo against a lethal Railroad man in the height of the Depression in a sort of cat and mouse game with taut action and gorgeous exterior that Aldrich pulls of splendidly...

Sid Haig joining in
The eclectic filmmaker's work resembles the antique film stock of a, for instance, Franklin J. Schaffner, or even Richard Fleischer, keeping an "old style" antique look, almost seeming like color was added to black & white film stock, counterbalancing the more modern realism of the 1970's, providing a throwback vibe and allowing actors to, like in NORTH, break into sudden bursts of hysterical laughter wherein you can almost hear the director yelling "Action" and "Cut" in-between the over-the-top hysterical outbursts...

Hell, it even happened in what's considered Sam Peckinpah's greatest achievement (not agreed here), THE WILD BUNCH, after the title bandits, surrounding a campfire, found out they stole bagfuls of slugs. Long story short, some movies didn't have the timeless vibe of a FRENCH CONNECTION or GODFATHER during that time: even though there's a degree of exploitive violence that you won't see in the other more realistic projects. And talk about violent: Ernest Borgnine plays the horrendously awful villain, Shack, equally despised by his employees and fellow railroad workers as he is the bums who know his legendary ways of cleaning up infamous Train 19: by finding any particular stowaway hobo and busting his skull with a mallet, and that's the end of that. It's as if they never existed.

Borg9 going overboard again
The best scenes are the interplay between veteran actors Lee Marvin and Borgnine; Marvin's character a folk hero amongst train-jumpers and vowing to ride old 19 despite the fact it's an almost impossible task. The way he plays tricks on both the machine and the machinist throughout the gorgeous location makes not only for mobile adventure, but dark humor and loads of suspenseful momentum: The irony is that the DOZEN veterans don't spend much time on screen together at all, save for their final battle, which could very well be one of the best man-to-man fights ever filmed. And beforehand, for anyone to "accuse" Borgnine for overacting, well... it's not that much a stretch. But with his face, he can get away with just about anything; and does here, in droves.

Limited Edition Blu Ray
On the softer, younger and more vulnerable side, Keith Carradine's cocky yet vulnerable upstart, Cigaret, who Marvin's character, known simply as "A Number 1," is reluctant to take in as a partner. Lee's no mentor and yet, with Carradine's persistence, he has no choice. Think Jon Voight and Eric Roberts in RUNAWAY TRAIN years later, only they were on the same proverbial boat from the beginning, and here we have no unnecessary love interest to derail the bloody, sweaty ride that, although contrived at times, is never unfocused on what, or rather, who the important elements are: two men doing their jobs, and only one getting paid for it.

RATING: ***1/2
TRIVIA: Many faces turn up quickly without much of a part other than the main four or five leads including Western favorite Matt Clark and THE LONGEST YARD snitch and always villainous Charles Tyner, the ultimate YARD rat who doesn't think much of James Hampton... Speaking of that film, underrated black actor, Harry Caesar, whose bug-eyes seem like they've seen just about everything and everyone, is the coal shoveling man on the train, and as pictured, an actor who'd become a b-movie legend years later, Sid Haig, plays one of many laughing bums, this one holding a turkey, while Marvin's in the process of derailing Borgnine's legacy.
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