Emperor of the North (1973) is a funny kind of film, brutal and funny. It starts in the 1920s with a train coming through a hobo camp, but most of the 'bos were to scared to hop aboard. When one manages, Ernest Borgnine, the train's captain named Shack, sneaks up behind him with a short-handled hammer and knocks him off. We see half a hobo on each side of a rail as the train passes by, then the credits roll.
Later, Lee Marvin, hobo A-Number-One, does manage to get on that train, but Keith Carradine, Cigarette, tags along behind and Borgnine spots him. Marvin realizes that they are screwed. He's a cynical old-timer. Carradine just brags that he's too smart to get caught. He's a young man full of talk and himself.
They make it out of the train through a dangerous trick, but Carradine is caught. The yardmen (including Elisha Cook, Jr!) don't believe he rode the that train, because Borgnine "would rather kill a man than let him ride free." They figure anyone who knows Borgnine will bet no one could ride his train, and then they'll reveal that someone has. In the commotion Carradine slips away.
Meanwhile, Marvin is convinced that if he can ride Borgnine's train to Portland, he'll be the greatest hobo in the land, the "Emperor of the North Pole." So he chalks his trips up on the watertower and the race is on. Will he make the trip? Will Carradine get to tag along? Will Borgnine kill one or both of them?
Robert Aldrich is a great choice to direct this, since he's a legendary tough guy, who directed Marvin and Borgnine in The Dirty Dozen. I associate him with the noir Kiss Me Deadly, but he did lots of fine color work. This has a clean, direct look, very well suited to the beautiful Oregon scenery and fine looking locomotives. It's full of that quaint old hobo feel, with Marvin's clever tricks - that endanger or kill more people than you might expect. Also, Borgnine is terrifying - teeth bared in a grimace, eyes bulging out of his head - not the McHale I remember.
I suspect the uneven tone is entirely intentional: The life of a hobo is romantic, free, and brutal.
My only complaint is the title: It was originally Emperor of the North Pole, which was puzzling, but made sense in context. Emperor of the North is just as puzzling, but makes no sense. I guess they were afraid people would think it's about Santa Claus.