Emperor of the North (Blu-ray Review)5 Oct, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine.
Though ultimately not up to its frequent high points, Robert Aldrich’s nothing if not peppy 1973 attempt to overcome an obscure-sounding movie title is an undeniable auteur exercise, starting with its choice in casting. Ernest Borgnine and the director had gone all the way back to 1954’s Vera Cruz, while Lee Marvin began his Aldrich association with Attack! in ’56 — both of these warm-ups to their combo casting in The Dirty Dozen. This Depression-set variation on, I almost swear, a Road Runner cartoon may be least of these four, but the other three films are titans of their type, so predisposed fans may be willing to enjoy for the glass that’s half-full and maybe even a little more.
The year is 1933 (same year as Wild Boys of the Road — a living room double-bill in the making), and the country is out of work. Marvin is riding the rails (and on good days, boxcars), arguably adding a little class to his company of peers by wearing a tie with a coat that probably hasn’t been dry-cleaned since the Taft Administration. Enjoying the crisp clean air of the movie’s well-used Oregon locations except for the times when he’s affixed horizontally atop a train car while it’s pouring, Marvin and his means of transport are not appreciated by the train’s sadistic brakeman (Ernie), a man who loves his job a wee too much. Trespassers regularly get theirs with the latter’s arsenal, which include an imposing chain Borgnine likes to swing about plus an array of blunt mental objects that rearrange knees and skull formations.
Marvin pretty well agrees with those who regard him as the vicinity’s No. 1 ride-stealer and a so-called emperor of the North — though whenever anyone makes the allusion here, it always comes out as “emperor of the North Pole.” This is because “pole” was a part of movie’s original title (and it even trade-screened that way) — though the 20th Century Fox marketing department understandably stressed out over this. A late-inning title modification ensued so that potential drive-in patrons wouldn’t think the marquee was advertising some new variation on Ice Station Zebra or Nick Ray’s The Savage Innocents. What remains, though, is still a fairly non-descriptive moniker.
Much more obvious and on point is the degree to which the story’s third principal is such a transparent creep. In his first major screen role (though he’d made a great brief impression earlier in McCabe and Mrs. Miller), Keith Carradine really nails his portrayal of a green, egotistical pretender who imbeds himself in Marvin’s personal space and keeps showing up after we’ve long assumed that someone by now has gotten really fed up and finally set him on fire or something. But no. Carradine is like a bedbug you can’t get rid of, and bugging Marvin is what he does until — well, just you wait. Carradine’s comeuppance is part of a strong wrap-up that compensates for certain sins here, including a score that begins with a god-awful title tune (apologies to the great Marty Robbins) and doesn’t improve much. Aldrich is one of my favorite directors, but there weren’t too many instances when the music in his movies (usually, as here, by Frank DeVol) did him any favors. In this case, there are times when the scoring turns the movie into a near-farce, and farce rarely played the director’s strengths, though it did in the Aldrich movie that followed.
For dribbly Fox DeLuxe Color of the period, Twilight Time has come up with a good visual rendering, and the supporting cast is full of so many familiar un-pretty faces — Simon Oakland, Malcolm Atterbury, Hal Baylor, Matt Clark and Charles Tyner are just some — that you have to figure that Ed Lauter must have been on vacation when it came time to cast. People talk about how broad Borgnine’s characterization is here, but broadness is inherent in the part, and his costuming is exactly on point (here’s a case where clothes do make the man). Lee vs. Ernie: Man, do I miss the days. It’s a familiar story but one worth repeating: Aldrich made so much money off The Dirty Dozen that he was able to launch his own production studio, whereupon he immediately embarked on such a long string of box office underperformers that he finally had to unload it. Emperor of the North came at the very end of this streak, but the following year brought The Longest Yard, and he was back on top. For a while.