As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
Robert Aldrich was an in-between-days kind of filmmaker, flourishing as television was conquering cinema, graduating from being an assistant director to Lewis Milestone and Joseph Losey. Hollywood was already in decline/transition as he found his footing. Aldrich rarely knew the security of a studio contract, was usually a struggling independent, was pushed around by stars and producers, and went into a career decline in the seventies with a series of projects which either failed to find an audience or failed to deserve one. Some of these films have enthusiastic admirers, but Aldrich was unable to realize passion projects like The Sheltering Sky, which he had hoped to film from Paul Bowles' novel, a surprising choice that hints there was more to Aldrich than we were ever allowed to see.
Screenwriter Lem Dobbs, barely out of his teens (or maybe still in them?), tried to sell his script of The Limey to Aldrich, and has suggested that such a taut project would've rescued the tough-guy director's career. Maybe. In fact, I like, up to a point, some of those late films (1974's The Longest Yard, 1975's Hustle) and some of the flaws in Aldrich's late work have nothing to do with a failure to find conducive material or move with the times, but merely point up areas in which the big guy just lacked sensitivity.
Music, for instance: the inane Hal David/Frank De Vol theme song "A Man and a Train" starts Emperor of the North Pole (1973, sometimes known, apologetically, as Emperor of the North) on a note of anachronism and inanity, enumerating the ways in which a man and a train may be comparable, yet different, at rather hilarious length. De Vol had been screwing up Aldrich's movies for near twenty years at this point, and Aldrich never noticed.
Opticals are another issue: set in 1933, this one opens with an iris-out, evoking Charlie Chaplin or maybe Mickey Mouse. Like Peckinpah, Aldrich should never have been allowed near an optical printer. Still, at least we don't get the animated blood-splash that turns The Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) momentarily into an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. Aldrich's films always seem to have credits designed by Universal Title, who always treated everything like a TV movie: their drably unvarying typography seems to promise us "You are in no way going to have a unique experience here," and yet frequently with this director we are pleasantly surprised.
I will never ever feel nostalgic for the above text lay-out style.
But be not afraid: the movie does delve deep into those areas where the director is on a surer footing. Specifically, the realm or big ugly men yelling and hitting each other, a form of entertainment predominant in most of the filmmaker's best movies outside the hagsploitation school he more or less invented (and that genre was really just a feminine version of the typical Aldrich slugfest).
Here, the men include Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine from The Dirty Dozen (1969), plus Keith Carradine, a man who always works beautifully in period, his starveling scarecrow frame peculiarly suited to loud checks, union suits, suspenders, or, here, ragged hobo garb.
For this is the ultimate hobo action film, celebrating the riders of the rails (and derived from the work of Jack London, who knew this territory intimately) and the railroad employees dedicated to their violent ejection from locomotive transport. Carradine is the tyro or "bump," Marvin is the old hand known as A-No 1, Borgnine the vicious conductor Shack with whom they duel.
Shot on the same Oregonian tracks and with the same rolling stock as Keaton's The General (1928), Emperor of the North Pole has a similar dedication to extending each sequence to nerve-racking length, and a similar willingness to seemingly endanger the life and limbs of its snarling leads. See Marvin and Carradine run alongside a moving train and then swing under it to hang inches from the speeding rails! See Borgnine lumber along the top of the same train, armed with a steel hammer, looking like a homicidal leprechaun!
The script, by Christopher Knopf, is strong on thirties flavor, and the real settings help a lot: if it weren't for the music, our immersion in the gritty atmosphere of the Great Depression and the company of loud, brutal maniacs would be total.
Aldrich should have thrived in the seventies, an era when sweaty, ultra-masculine fare was in the ascendant. Borgnine at times resembles the masterpiece of a granite sculptor whose mother was startled by a hippo, or a cartoon by Jack Kirby inked under the influence of moonshine and concussion. He is always trying to pulverize the face-bones of his fellow actors, whether with a lug hammer, length of chain, steel rod on a rope, two-by-four, or just with his acting. His eyes bulge from his face like ball gags in twin mouths, mad and hot.
Marvin, meanwhile, spends much of the film with his face smeared with coal dust, creating a set of capuchin markings that accentuate his simian qualities: he always resembled an organ-grinder's monkey with pituitary issues. His effortless cool is impressive considering the lethal machinery and hambone psychopathy he's constantly battling.
It would not be literally true to say that this whole film is a vicious, ketchup-soaked punch-up on a train, but it feels that way, rendering the viewer punchy and deafened (much of the dialogue, when it's not snazzy hobo-speak, is just screamed monosyllables: "Shack! Shack!" "Sand! Sand!"). Which can be surprisingly rewarding.