Emperor of the North ★★★★

"Country's gone to hell"

I’m getting to the point where I feel like I have to write a book on Robert Aldrich—no filmmaker makes every cut, close-up, and gesture feel so violent, so alive in the DNA of his filmmaking. The more and more films I see I’m struck by his lack of a sense of decency he never he begins to consider. He’s a kid who sees a scab, picks at it, and then gets tweezers to pull back even more skin until blood is everywhere. His hobos versus railway men film here is an apotheosis of this: A big period piece picture taken over from Pekinpah in which the amorality of the depression leads to a set of games for men to prove their men, or just because they really like violence (I swore Borgnine’s eyes were going to pop out of his head). The sequences here are intense and haunting—there’s particularly one reel of an early morning game in which the fog is intensely thick (which makes it terrific to see on 35mm), and it goes on for like fifteen slowly ratcheted minutes with giddy delight. The later violent fights are both brutally alive and brutal to watch. Alain Silver writes, “The graphic brutality of the combat is most disquieting, both for its images and for its revelation that the game is far deadlier than the player let on.” But there is humor here too—the father-son dynamic between Marvin and baby face Caradine (and a nice kick to the resolution — “You got no class kid!”), the baptism scene, the chicken stealing scene that leads to the community of hobos. Aldrich has a twisted mind. The only morals here are pride, and these men go to whatever lengths to not prove their own worth, but make the other guy look like shit. North is much more potent here than the more political leaning Ulzana’s or Twilight’s (both truly exceptional pictures but for very different reasons). Yes. Aldrich endorses violence, and all the better for it.

The title song is pretty god awful, however.