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July 12, 2012

Midnight Movie of the Week #132 - Emperor of the North

Sometimes, the measure of a great actor is how well he or she can play against our expectations.  Like, when a guy we know as a comedic buffoon plays a sensitive poet or when a romantic comedy veteran plays an angry stripper.  Taking roles that are against type doesn't automatically make you awesome - if that's how it worked, Elizabeth Berkley would have all the Oscars for shedding her Saved by the Bell image (and all her clothing) for Showgirls.  Extenuating circumstances stopped that scenario from happening - plus she was never exactly Meryl Streep Jr. in the first place.
If we're talking about times when great actors (i.e. - not Elizabeth Berkley) surprised us with their range, we might talk about Emperor of the North.  Or at least I might.  In fact, I've been meaning to talk about this movie for a long time, and it's with a heavy heart that I finally bring it up now, just days after the death of its star, Ernest Borgnine, who has long been one of my favorite actors.
I first took notice of Borgnine, like many genre fans, when he appeared as the endlessly lovable Cabbie in John Carpenter's Escape From New York.  I was certainly late to the party, as Borgnine had been working in TV and film for thirty years when that film was made and closer to fifty years by the time I saw the film.  I'm positive it wasn't the first film I saw that featured the man, but it's definitely the first time I remember taking notice of how good the actor was at his craft.  And as I looked into his earlier films - including true classics like Marty, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar in 1955.

(Fun Fact: To win that Oscar, Borgnine beat a field of competitors that included no less than James Cagney, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, and Spencer Tracy. An impressive - and well deserved - feat.)
Borgnine took on several villainous roles - in fact, he opposed Tracy in Bad Day at Black Rock the same year he won his Oscar - but I still generally saw him as a charming grandfather figure who makes me smile when he shows up in any film.  Which makes his work on Emperor of the North that much more impressive.

The film, set in 1933 and the height of the Great Depression, features Borgnine as a sadistic train conductor, known only as "Shack" to both his colleagues and the hobos who fear him.  No punches are pulled in creating this character, as the script calls for Borgnine to brutally beat a man with a large railroad hammer before the opening credits make their way to the screen.  Several of the down-on-their-luck types who populate the film speak of Shack as a mythical villain.  One of the characters even opines with fear that "Shack'd rather kill a man than give him a free ride", as if the character is completely devoid of a soul.
And that's where the surprise I mentioned earlier comes into the film. The script can say whatever it wants about Shack, but only the right actor can make us believe what we learn about Shack.  And - as you can probably guess by now - Borgnine does not disappoint.  There's an intensity behind the man's eyes that comes from a scary place.  It's kind of like that first time a kid sees their parent really angry, and feels like they're seeing an entirely new person, or like that scene from Monsters, Inc. when Boo sees Sully in scary mode.  Borgnine smirks and sneers and almost seems to get a rise from the violent attitude he shows on screen, and it's a complete change from what I used to expect from the jovial actor.
The performance works even better opposite granite faced tough guy Lee Marvin, who does not play against type in this role.  Another past Oscar winner, Marvin plays the cagiest 'bo (that's Shack-speak for hobo, naturally) on the rails, who makes it his goal to ride Shack's train despite the legends of cruelty that precede the railman.  Marvin, covered in dirt and sporting impressive whiskers, is the perfect foil to our snarling madman who has no real motivation for being so vicious.
In fact, it's that lack of motivation (along with some fun asides and a bit of perspective on the culture of that time period) for both characters that really pushes Emperor of the North into a special place.  Shack and his opponent are driven by little more than a desire to be the best at what they are.  Some would say that the hobo is riding for his survival - an idea that is referred to on an opening text that explains the railroad hopping hobo of 1933 - but most scenes that show Marvin's character off the train present a man who is relaxed and care-free in the moment.  My interpretation of the film has always been that this is a battle for supremacy, pure and simple - especially when you realize how little Shack really has on the line in regards to one stinkin' hobo and his tagalong (a young and raw Keith Carradine, who misses a few notes) catching a ride to Portland.
Emperor of the North has all the makings of a fun '70s flick, balancing the line between drama and grindhouse expertly.  But it's these performances that really make it something unique.  I've never seen Ernest Borgnine like he is in Emperor of the North Pole, and this brutal outlier serves as a great example of how seriously the man took his craft.  Shack is a bad, bad man - and Ernest Borgnine isn't going to let the fact that we all think he's the sweetest old man on the block stop him from becoming one of the era's most deadly villains.
R.I.P, Ernest Borgnine. Thank you for the memories, and know that I - and many others - have found great joy in your works. We will miss you.


Anonymous said...

Check out his role as Sgt "Fatso" Judson in From Here to Eternity. It might shed some insight onto his role as Shack.

The Mike said...

Good call! It's been a while since I saw FHTE, but it's definitely a similar role. I remember being pretty shocked by him there too.

Thanks for reading!