BR: Emperor of the North (1973)

December 6, 2016 | By

EmperorOfTheNorth_BRFilm: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: September 8, 2015

Genre:  Drama / Black Comedy

Synopsis: Top dog hobo A No. 1 is determined to ride train 19 and avoid brutal expulsion from its vicious railroad man Shack in this grim Depression era drama / black comedy.

Special Features: 2006 Audio Commentary by film historian Dana Polan / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Robert Aldrich did not make movies about nice people, but rather flawed groups of barely contained ire and rage worming through tales of cruel irony or a mean finale, often centered on two rivals, so it’s not hard to see why the tough director was attracted to Christopher Knopf’s lean, mean little script (itself reportedly based on stories penned by Jack London under the pseudonym Leon Ray Livingston).

Set in the deep end of the Depression of 1933, Emperor of the North focuses on train 19, managed by a sociopathic railroad man named Shack (Ernest Borgnine, perhaps at his most terrifying) who uses a massive sledgehammer to bash hobos off his train.

An aging career hobo named A No. 1 (Lee Marvin) takes the 19 as a challenge, plus he simply doesn’t give a shit about Shack because AN1 has been able to outsmart the best of any railroad team. He knows every diversion tactic, can improvise and escape any tight situation, and even when lying in a trash heap, find tools to slow down a locomotive and enable a quick leap to a roof, scramble to a safe nook, and travel the county gratis with complete impunity.

His only foil is a lanky, bug-eyed snot named Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a poseur and big mouth who steals credit from anyone, and although young, the kid has convinced himself that he’s the bee’s knees. No matter where AN1 goes, Cigaret is close by, often hanging on like a leech.

As film historian Dana Polan states in his 2006 commentary track, the film’s opening crawl may purport to be a snapshot of 1933 America, but it’s a mythic take of two rivals – AN1 and Shack – out-maneuvering each other until a bloody, vengeful hand-to-hand combat. There’s no doubt the two aging pros will meet head-on, but the X factor is Cigaret, mucking up simple plans and being a thorn to both men.

There’s really no good guy in this all-male drama / black comedy; everyone’s selfish, and the group of hobos living communally in the valleys may celebrate AN1’s recent ride on train 19, but they’re also quick to turn on each other based on rumours of lies or jealousy; the only thing that saves a hobo from becoming an outcast or being eaten alive is living by a certain code, to which Cigaret can’t commit because he’s too comfortable sponging off others.

For a film with so many characters (and truly fine character actors, as well), Emperor’s two leading stars have very little dialogue, and much of the tension comes from physical performances and the meticulously edited non-verbal reactions of Borgnine, Marvin, and motormouth Carradine.

Aldrich also punches up the drama by slamming us with massive sweaty close-ups that dignify no one: Borgnine’s facial folds and glowering eyes reinforce his disdain for humanity; Marvin’s whole head is a grubby orb blotted with black soot, brown teeth, and a perpetual smirk; and Carradine stays pretty because Cigaret is fully invested in maintaining the aura and performance of a winner.

Fox’s HD transfer is one of the studio’s best: not unlike Oliver Stone’s U-Turn (1997) which used reversal film to achieve a high contrast look, Emperor is packed with deep blacks, rich browns and beige tans, and any reds pop off the screen. The two films share close stylistic similarities, as both Stone and Aldrich sought to magnify heat and its causal effects on the human body by literally burning the sun’s intensity into the flesh of the characters.

Cinematographer Joseph Biroc had more than 150 credits before his retirement after 1987, and alongside several Aldrich productions he also lensed Blazing Saddles (1974), Frank Sinatra’s crime trilogy Tony Rome (1967), The Detective (1968), and Lady in Cement (1968), and the first 3D feature film in the U.S., Bwana Devil (1952). Biroc’s images are neatly choreographed by editor Michael Luciano, another Aldrich regular who edited the detective / sci-fi oddity Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and near the end of his career, the comedy classic Stripes (1981).

Polan describes Emperor as a film deliberately constructed as an ode to classic silent film, but perhaps a little more. Biroc’s harsh visuals also recall classic Technicolor cinematography, but there are aspects which evoke slapstick comedies, such as specific visual gags, and the use of arcane optical transitions as vertical wipes and the film’s opening iris.

Along with her repertory of veteran character actors, one gets a sense the production of Emperor ran like a well-oiled machine, and in spite of not clicking with critics and audiences, it’s evolved into a hidden classic in both Aldrich’s canon and seventies cinema that happened to have been made by a studio veteran – or an independent-minded maverick – who worked within the system and fought to get his brand of hard drama made and released.

Emperor does have weird shifts between moments of utter cruelty and dark humour, which is on occasion is offset by Frank De Vol’s odd score. In terms of shocks, the pre-credit scene flows from a montage of train 19 and an upbeat vocal with facile lyrics to Shack in action, whacking a hobo with his sledgehammer, and Aldrich actually showing the man falling under the moving train and rolling underneath, where he’s mangled by the massive wheels.

De Vol follows this grim sequence with an upbeat instrumental theme version, and the only time the score becomes truly tense and dissonant is in the finale, when Shack and AN1 have their man-to-man gladiator battle using chains, hammers, wooden planks, and an ax.

Between the violence are dry bouts of humour derived from AN1 outsmarting Shack, and the dueling egos between AN1 and Cigaret as they attempt to outmaneuver each other with variable levels of success, Marvin owns the film by saying very little, and reacting with minimal emotions, while Borgnine’s Shack only cares about preserving the purity of his train using one of several types of sledgehammers he keeps strapped to a wall. (Most of the actors did a fair share of stunts, walking atop the train, hanging from the sides, and leaping on & off the moving machine, making their characters thoroughly believable.)

The film’s weird tonal shifts and outright grimness made it a tough sell for Fox, who retitled the film from Emperor of the North Pole because of a perceived fear audiences might believe Aldrich’s drama had something tied to arctic exploration. British censors also didn’t care for the way AN1 wields a live chicken like a sack to fend off Cigaret’s band of vagabonds, and it took almost two decades before the film was restored in Region 1 land with all the bloody bits.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is a visual stunner, and it’s a treat to hear De Vol’s score isolated in stereo, including unused portions of longer cues. Ported over from Fox’s 2006 DVD is Polan’s commentary, which might be better appreciated by film theorists than mainstream film fans. Although packed with meticulous observations, it’s a rather dry and circuitous oration on Aldrich’s oeuvre, themes, and the recurring motifs in the film, and often feels like a slightly improvised essay reading that ultimately peters out by the final act. Julie Kirgo’s new booklet essay adds more production backstory for a project originally begun by Sam Peckinpah but ultimately filmed by Aldrich.

Emperor isn’t a work that grows on you; the film provokes either immediate bafflement and dissatisfaction, or mounting fascination for a mature work that’s lean, mean, and atypical from classic studio filmmaking. It’s often compared to westerns because it also deals with men in tough natural environments; living (local) legends defending their reputations; and a battle between good and evil.

If Aldrich’s 1973 film may seem fresh, one only need flip back roughly 20 years to Vera Cruz (1954), another atypical western in which the two leads dance and battle as partners and double-crossers and revengers. It’s also another example of Aldrich as a maverick in directorial technique, choosing peculiar angles and cutting points for even standard visual montages involving a parade of horseback soldiers. As a fifties western, it still retains a freshness among more traditional genre efforts by elder statesmen, including Howard Hawks, John Ford, and William Wellman.

Those transfixed by the flawless technical and directorial quality of Emperor will find plenty to admire within Aldrich’s lengthy career which spanned 1952-1981, and includes war dramas (Attack), noir (Kiss Me Deadly, and the neo-noir Hustle), postwar dramas (Flight of the Phoenix), horror (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte), dry comedies (The Choirboys, All the Marbles), and a biblical epic (Sodom and Gomorrah).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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