Reflections of the Third Eye
29 March 2013
Emperor Of The North (1973)
Topic: E

This week's obscure '70s movie is EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973), an archetypal tough-guy-duel set during the Great Depression. Lee Marvin is the experienced hobo vagabond who knows every trick of the road, Ernest Borgnine the sadistic train conductor who kills hobos who try to get a free ride on "his" train. It turns into a battle of wits and strength while the entire hobo community roots for Marvin's character*. Added to the basic story is a young hobo in training, an obnoxious smart-mouth played by Keith Carradine. Marvin reluctantly takes this kid on as a protege while trying to outsmart Borgnine, let alone survive. The movie is brilliantly shot by a director and cinematographer who clearly loved the challenge of shooting trains in a (Northern California) rural setting. Although not a high-budget movie the attention to detail is excellent, and the portrayal of the hobos as essentially proud men hit by hard times who maintain their special code seems convincing. Apparently Jack London's vagrant novels were an inspiration. No one can go wrong casting Marvin and Borgnine who both excel at their classic typecast best--Marvin tough as hell but a decent man, Borgnine tough but vicious and evil. The final battle between the two is a fitting ending to the movies, neatly closing the arc from an equally effective exposition.
Director Robert Aldrich (best known movie: "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?") was no 'New Hollywood' auteur, but much like Sam Peckinpah his feel for realistic, grim action makes for a movie that has aged well--much better than, say, "Kelly's Heroes". So what is the problem? Well, Keith Carradine's part was not well-written, and he was apparently unable to improve or solve its problems. The thing to do then is to underplay the part and let the audience fillout the blanks, but unfortunately young Carradine** goes the otherway and overplays his part, with absurd and unfounded mood shifts and a general lack of conviction no matter what he does. His final scene in the movie is fitting, not just for his character, but for Carradine himself. Apart from this, a rather fine movie worth seeing. Note: there is not a single female character in the film. The IMDB rating is pretty good and I concur (7/10).

*1980s movie "Runaway Train" borrows quite a bit from this one.

**Turns out this was Keith Carradine's debut in a major feature. I guess he has enough screen presence not to have his career ruined by the bad acting here. A little later he did "The Duelists" with Harvey Keitel -- another forgotten '70s movie and in fact Ridley Scott's first movie -- and there was nothing wrong with his performance there

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:51 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:34 AM MEST

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