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It is during the great depression in the US, and the land is full of people who are now homeless. Those people, commonly called "hobos", are truly hated by Shack (Borgnine), a sadistical railway conductor who swore that no hobo will ride his train for free. Well, no-one but "A" Number One (Lee Marvin), who is ready to put his life at stake to become a local legend - as the first person who survived the trip on Shack's notorious train. Written by
Brian Peterson firstname.lastname@example.org
This is the kind of story that Tom Wolfe might have written. It's about what he would have called a "status-sphere" and ordinary sociologists would have called a subculture. It's about competition within a limited environment, about acquiring status, about working your way up the ladder of prestige within a particular specialized structure by means of courage, skill, and strategy. Only instead of the wild blue yonder, or landing on the heaving deck of an aircraft carrier, or NASCAR racing, the thing to be conquered here is Ernest Borgnine, the sadistic conductor who chuckles as he throws hobos off his train, sometimes to their deaths, kind of redoing his Fatso Judson number.
It's a classical subculture in that it has all the features of a closed world with its own values. Everyone seems to know everyone else. And, as in most subcultures, including those that used to be called "primitive societies," the initiate is given a new name. In other movies exploring such subcultures they may have names like "Fast Eddy," "Minnesota Fats," "Maverick," "Dragstrip," "Charlie the Gent." Here they have names like "A Number 1" (Lee Marvin), "Cigaret" (Keith Carradine), and "Shack" (Borgnine). They even had their own written language, a set of pictographs scratched into rocks or written in dirt, conveying messages like, "This family good for a free meal," or , "Work for a meal," or, "Stay away. Cops." There were small communities of hobos, often carved out of track-side garbage dumps.
Interesting cast, by the way, a lot of familiar faces in bit parts -- Simon Oakland, Elija Cook Jr.
Makeup and Wardrobe Departments have done a fine job of turning them into 'Bos. They don't look Hollywood dirty, with a few smears of mud. They just look dirty. Their clothing is filthy. All in all, a good delousing looks called for. Marvin's face, by the time this was released, looked just beat-up enough, and from life, not booze. And check out his decaying lower incisors.
The plot has to do with a duel of wits between Marvin, who is determined to demonstrate his skill at the top of the status ziggurat by riding Borgnine's train to Porland, OR. Borgnine, much to the puzzlement of the rest of the train crew, is obsessed with keeping his freight train clean of hitch-hikers. He's fiendishly clever in smoking out and hurting riders. Carradine is the kind of youth often called "callow." He brags a lot and is brave but, alas, is unable to absorb the rules of the game because he plays for reasons of self aggrandizement, not for the team. He winds up in the drink.
There's something else about this movie that may keep a viewer interested. It takes place during the depression. The trains are slow, fed by coal, and powered by steam. They rock back and forth gently, as if trying to put a passenger or a stowaway to sleep. And they travel through a sunny evergreen wilderness in the Northwest. It's the kind of scenic journey you now have to pay for if you want to make a round trip to San Juan, CO. What was in the 1930s essential to a certain kind of existence has now been vulgarized and turned into a tourist's delight.
It's a small story about small people. There is nothing epic about it. The score seems to owe something to Burt Bacharach, who was so successful a few years earlier with "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." And, for my taste, there are one or two too many choker close-ups filling the screen with monstrous teeth and sweaty flesh. But it's hard to ignore the movie. You'll probably want to find out what happens next.
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