The original title of the film was slightly shortened because it might have caused audiences to expect a tale about the exploration of the Arctic, and 20th Century-Fox was worried about disappointing them. It is quintessential Robert Aldrich, full of energy and force, and like many of his films – from Vera Cruz (1954) to The Last Sunset (1961) or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – based on the dramatic structure of a duel, in this case between Number 1 (Lee Marvin), the most resourceful illegal rail rider during the Great Depression, and the obsessive, sadistic railway man Shack (Ernest Borgnine), although here the original screenplay by Christopher Knopf has added a complementary tale about a younger hobo, Cigaret (Keith Carradine) who should learn from the experience and knowledge of the veteran played by Marvin. Playing with confidence and restraint, Marvin (who had received an Academy Award for Cat Ballou, by far his worst acting ever), embodies the typical anti-establishment hero of the Great Depression, here depicted (just forty years later) relentlessly as a time of savage desperation and hunger-driven brutality from the very beginning of the movie, while a quite neurotic Borgnine represents the fanatically strict ‘law & order’ mentality that usually masks the abuse of power in the name of private property.
Quite linear and spare, it marks Aldrich posture as both dissident and rebellious, clearly taking the outlaw’s side (at times over-emphasized by the music), and yet it looks harsh in his judgment of the arrogant, disrespectful and overconfident young bum, a stand close to that of Howard Hawks at the time, which was hardly surprising, but perhaps unexpected from someone more than twenty years his junior like Robert Aldrich, who in 1973 was only 55.
Cast and Credits
Scen.: Christopher Knopf. F.: Joseph F. Biroc. M.: Michael Luciano. Scgf.: Jack Martin Smith. Mus.: Frank De Vol. Int.: Lee Marvin (Numero 1), Ernest Borgnine (Shack), Keith Carradine (Cigaret), Charles Tyner (Cracker), Malcolm Atterbury (Hogger), Harry Caesar (Coaly), Simon Oakland (il poliziotto), Elisha Cook (Gray Cat). Prod.: Stan Hough per Inter-Hemisphere Productions, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. DCP. D.: 118’ Col.
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