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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

EMPEROR OF THE NORTH (1973)

Brutal, nihilistic, with plot & motives pared to near abstraction, this forgotten film from Robert Aldrich (a commercial & critical nonstarter) was conceived as absurd tragic farce, pulp fiction with trace elements out of Samuel Beckett & Eugène Ionesco. In Depression-era America, everyone ‘s looking for a hand-out. Just don’t go hunting up a free ride on railway conductor Ernest Borgnine’s train; he’ll gladly bash your head in. It’s a challenge Lee Marvin’s #1 Bum can’t let pass, even with novice drifter Keith Carradine tagging along. Like a TOM & JERRY cartoon with real bruises, the film escalates in danger & excitement, never pausing for backstory or explanation; it’s id all the way. Technically, it must have been an absolute bitch to film. And while Frank DeVol’s somewhat uncomprehending score gets in the way, a leathery cast of bums & train workmen, along with wide-ranging cinematography from Joseph Biroc, could hardly be bettered. Carradine was still learning how to act on the job, but he’s such a compelling physical presence you don’t mind waiting while he figures things out. The film is sui generis, even for the tough cinema of Robert Aldrich.

DOUBLE-BILL: The film is to Aldrich as BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA/’74 would be to Sam Peckinpah the next year: master statements completely misread or ignored on release that could have finished their makers off for good, but didn’t. Witness THE LONGEST YARD/’74 from Aldrich and CONVOY/’78 from Peckinpah.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: 20th/Fox couldn’t figure out why the director & stars of THE DIRTY DOZEN/’67 didn’t raise any kind of audience, so they kept tweaking the title . . . to no effect. (see bonus posters)

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