Yep, I’m still hard at work, doing the Letterboxd March Movie Madness challenge. That’s a movie a day, A for March 1st, B for March 2nd, und zo weiter. I’m even working a day ahead of time, because I know I have an unavoidable 12 hour work day on the 24th, and that ain’t gonna leave me in no movie-watchin’ condition.
Our latest chunk:
Emperor of the North (1973)
1933 was a pretty dismal year for America; the Great Depression is in full effect, homeless families are everywhere, and the nation is struggling to get back on its feet. But we’re not here for any Grapes of Wrath-type stuff, we are focusing on just one small part of the culture at that time: the hobo nation and its bellicose relationship with Big Railroad.
A career hobo who goes by the moniker A Number One (Lee Marvin) is King of the Road, Emperor of the North Pole, and a number of other sobriquets amongst his peripatetic brethren, but there is one thing he hasn’t yet accomplished: riding on the train of an infamously murderous conductor called The Shack (Ernest Borgnine), who has never allowed a hobo to survive a stolen ride on his train. In fact, our introduction to the man involves him bopping an oblivious tramp on the head with a large hammer and then laughing while the screaming man is cut in half under the wheels of the train. Complicating matters is a youthful braggart calling himself Cigarette (Keith Carradine), who spends his time either learning from A Number One or double-crossing him.
Emperor of the North is a pretty unique picture, providing some interesting insights into the clannish hobo culture and the dynamics of a freight train crew. The battle of wits between The Shack and A Number One provide the best parts of the movie, with the wily hobo generally a step ahead, but hampered by the extra, at first unwanted, baggage of Cigarette. A final betrayal by the callow youth causes the death of one crewman and the serious injury of another, and by this time we’re ready to let The Shack have his way with the treacherous whelp; but instead we get what we came for, a knockdown, drag-out fight between Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, using every weapon to hand that can be found on a moving freight train: chains, planks of wood, a fire axe.
Carradine actually manages to deliver a level of complexity into a thankless role; we see him actively choosing to make the bad decisions. Marvin is his usual cool bastard, but Borgnine… man, Borgnine is channeling every bad guy he ever played in his career, and The Shack is his ultimate, a man so consumed by anger he seems constantly on the verge of a stroke.
The film and entertainment world lost a lot of good people in 2012, but none of them punched me square in the heart like the passing of Ernest Borgnine. It affected me way more than I thought was possible, for a man who I had never met. I grew up with Quentin McHale, first when McHale’s Navy was first being broadcast, then in syndication, but it was during those first broadcasts that my Mom watched the movie Marty on TV one night. I watched it because it had McHale in it… but the sweet-natured butcher is only slightly similar to the fast-talking PT boat captain. Marty, of course, was Borgnine’s Oscar-winning performance, at even at that young age, I was aware I was watching something special.
Here was an actor who couldn’t be called handsome, or thin, but was operating at the top of his field. It wasn’t until later I became acquainted with his work as a heavy in other movies – From Here to Eternity, Bad Day at Black Rock – his characters are all over the map, from the gruff gladiator teacher in Demetrius and the Gladiators to the genial, mentally-challenged Cabbie in Escape from New York. RED is a fairly tepid thriller elevated by its amazing cast, and it was genuinely satisfying and edifying to see Borgnine crop up in that. I miss him terribly.
Ahem. Anyway, see Emperor of the North. It’s very good.
Raquel Welch plays Michele, a Las Vegas go-go dancer in a time when it was possible to make a good living out of it as a respectable career choice, ie., never, except in FantasyLand. One of her dancer pals just got a divorce from an unstable type (Luke Askew, of course), who proceeds to gun her down in front of a ton of witnesses, but decides the only other ones worth killing are Michele and the other dancer. He later manages to run over the other dancer and the cop protecting her, and Michele heads off to Los Angeles to hide in plain sight by dancing at a club there. She falls in love with a nice guy (James Stacey), so now Askew has to kill him, too.
There are some things to like in Flareup. Raquel is always easy on the eyes, and the relationship building between her and Stacey may be slow and deliberate, but it’s fairly believable. It’s that word “believable” where the rest of the movie gets into trouble. We’re asked to believe that Michele is a feisty loner, an independent woman. All this is fine until the filmmakers decide that this means SHE IS A COMPLETE AND UTTER MORON. She repeatedly turns down and even escapes from police protection. She uses the fact that Askew killed both her friend and her police escort as an excuse, ignoring that if another armed policeman had been on the scene, everybody might still be alive.
The movie’s other major flaw is allowing Askew to constantly catch up with Raquel, and almost pulling the trigger on her, only to be foiled by the sudden appearance of a cop. Flareup is a total tease in this department, employing that device no fewer than three times, maybe more. The movie doesn’t inspire careful note-taking, or much of anything, really.
Outside the appearance of a few topless dancers (no, pervs, Raquel does not work topless) and the demise of Askew at the end, this could easily be mistaken for an overly-long Movie of the Week. Though if you want to see a movie where Raquel Welch is saved by a pistol-packing Action Gordon Jump, this is your chance.
Go Tell The Spartans (1978)
This was supposed to be Good Night and Good Luck, which is even on The List, but I couldn’t find my copy of that. As I’m trying to only watch movies during this I’ve never seen, I turned to some movies I bought at the 12 for $50 sale at the WB Shop. It’s an older disc, with a 4:3 image of what wasn’t all that widescreen, but grumble grumble.
There was a sudden flap of Vietnam movies in the late 70s , and I had seen all of them, except this one, the first to hit the theaters (as an aside, I’m talking about real Vietnam movies, not Rambo or any number of Italian thrillers starring Chris Mitchum. Although I saw them, too). It was released in 1978, barely three years after America had pulled out, and in an attempt to deal with that still-pulsing wound in the national psyche, it’s set in 1964, when we were still sending in “military advisors” without that being a euphemism.
Burt Lancaster is Major Barker, a career man since World War II who constantly finds himself dismayed and puzzled by the conflict around him. A group of new recruits comes in, and the understaffed Barker has no choice but to put them in charge of establishing a garrison in an abandoned village that the French gave up on ten years before. We get the standard types from central casting: the gung-ho second looey, big on regulations but short on experience; the veteran of the Korean Conflict, who knows what works in war but is burnt-out; the druggie, the draftee who volunteered for the duty, blah blah blah. Of course, once the garrison is established, the Cong take an interest in it, and our green recruits re going to get a swift education or die.
Go Tell The Spartans has all the distinct tropes of what will constitute the Vietnam movie: the nighttime attacks, the attempts to understand and reach out to the native population, the betrayals that result from such attempts, the inability of the Western war machine to deal with a conflict that was so markedly different from any recent war. It manages to trot out all these and make a pretty decent war movie besides. Lancaster is terrific, and special kudos to first-timer Marc Singer as Barker’s executive officer and Craig Wasson as the mysterious draftee who “sure has a way with the dinks”. Also along are Evan Kim as the number one interpreter and chief torturer, “Cowboy” (man, Evan Kim should have had a much bigger career than he wound up with) and the always welcome James Hong, as a South Vietnamese soldier who bonds with Wasson despite the fact that the only English he knows is “A okay!”
Not a great or essential Vietnam movie, but a good one.
The Holy Mountain (1973)
It’s tempting to leave the review at that (I certainly did on Letterboxd) – any attempt to fully describe The Holy Mountain is going to get bogged down in itself. Stripped to the minimum, it is a tale of a thief (Horacio Salinas) who is taken in by an alchemist (writer/director Alejandro Jodorowsky himself) for his plot to assemble the most powerful people in the land, run them through an accelerated enlightenment program, and using these newly-minted masters to assault the table of the nine immortals who sit atop the Holy Mountain, and take their place as gods.
To say the journey is psychedelic and surreal is understating matters. The first half hour is nearly speechless, one bizarre image after another. As a vendor at a long-ago convention told me, “If you like seeing toads dressed in Aztec costumes get blown up, this is the movie for you.” Once we start getting introduced to the Alchemist’s chosen, “the most powerful people on the planet”, we shift into the increasingly absurd and humor so black it absorbs any light in its presence. These are awful people creating everything that is wrong in the world, and one is concerned that these are not the types of people you want to ascend to godhood – until you consider it later (especially if you’re an old hippie like myself) and you realize the Alchemist knows exactly what he is doing – these are the people that need to be taken out of the World, for the World’s own good. (Also, as the Alchemist proves earlier, the purest gold is made from shit)
If there is an actual flaw in the movie (for me, anyway – this flick is an incredibly subjective experience) it’s the voyage to the Holy Mountain and the rituals/exercises the party has to go through for enlightenment. But I’ll also concede that it all seems old hat to me because in my sophomore year – about this time – my unbearably cool young English teacher, Mrs. Watson, recommended Carlos Castaneda to me. And in the bright remove of those early 70s, it is amazing to me that those books were in my school library. Still, one can’t tell a tale of shamanism without showing some shamanism, so here we are.
Apparently The Holy Mountain was going to be the most expensive Mexican movie ever made, but wound up costing less than its projected $1.5 million budget. As with Jodorowsky’s other works, the imagery is rich and lush, and I’m surprised he brought it in for less than that. It is colorful, spellbinding, and absolutely berserk. You’re either going to watch it, or not. Personally, I advise watching it. Unlike some, I’m going to advise watching it sober, or at least as far away from any actual psychotropics as you can get. I won’t be responsible for anyone ignoring that particular piece of advice.