Boxcar Bertha Review

Although Boxcar Bertha wasn’t Martin Scorsese’s first film, it was his first completed venture into the world of commercial filmmaking. His debut film, the fresh and exciting Who’s That Knocking At My Door had led to him getting a directing gig on The Honeymoon Killers but he was fired from the project for his insistence on shooting the whole thing solely in master shots. Not for the first time, Roger Corman came to the rescue of a young filmmaker and Scorsese was given the opportunity of directing one of AIP’s Bonnie and Clyde rip-offs. As Bonnie and Clyde rip-offs go, Boxcar Bertha is pretty good, suffering only in comparison to the original inspiration, John Milius’ far more interesting Dillinger and the majority of Scorsese’s later career. After he finished the film, his idol John Cassavetes congratulated him on spending a year of his life making “a piece of shit”. It’s easy to see where Cassavetes was coming from, and this was the piece of advice which ultimately led to the completion of the remarkable Mean Streets. But even if it is, ultimately, a piece of shit, Boxcar Bertha has a lot more to recommend it than most AIP exploiters of the period.

The film is based on the memoirs of ‘Boxcar’ Bertha Thompson, “Sister Of The Road”, a colourful account of her career as a drifter and relatively small-time criminal., along with her partner in crime, union organiser Bill Shelley. Like the book, however, the film comes across as a serious of familiar set-pieces which cover all the bases until a remarkably unexpected downbeat conclusion.

Scorsese’s visual style is clearly still in an early stage of development here but that still makes Boxcar Bertha a lot more impressive to look at than, for example, Bloody Mama which was released around the same time. The prologue, in which Bertha loses her crop-duster father to the remorseless inhumanity of capitalist exploitation, is a dazzling collection of shots which culminates in a gorgeous, mystically fog-shrouded scene of Bertha jumping on her first train. Then he delights in a classic Hollywood montage sequence over which he places monochrome portraits of the cast. Scorsese manages to his budgetary restrictions through a highly controlled style which includes a lot of myth-making chiaroscuro. The main restriction placed on Scorsese by AIP was that every reel had to include some drive-in friendly nudity and violence. But given these strictures, Scorsese manages to make the sex surprisingly tender and touching and the violence is heavily stylised - especially the final crucifixion scene which he later revisited at greater length in The Last Temptation of Christ. Appropriately enough, the book upon which the later film was based was first given to him by Barbara Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha and Scorsese repaid the favour by casting her as the Magdalene. Scorsese also manages to include some decidedly quirky moments which seem to arise naturally out of the material. My favourite is the visit to the drifters encampment where Bertha is taught to play craps, a moment which has some of the true period flavour of John Ford’s The Grapes Of Wrath. Most of all, there’s a palpable energy here which creates real excitement, not least because its so surprising in a film of this kind. Certainly, by 1972, Corman’s enthusiasm for directing seemed to have considerably dimmed and there’s none of this kind of excitement in the work of Steve Carver. The occasional eruptions of genius in the AIP cheapie work of Scorsese, Milius and Jonathan Demme are, it has to be said, very much the exception to the rule.

However, the film is seriously hobbled by a number of unfortunate limitations. The first, and most damaging, is Barbara Hershey’s performance. In 1971, she had not yet adopted her ludicrous two-year name change to Barbara Seagull but the gee-whiz performance style which was so disastrous in The Baby Maker and The Pursuit of Happiness is much in evidence. Later in her career, Hershey’s abilities improved dramatically until she managed to do some genuinely good work in films like Hannah And Her Sisters. But she’s completely inadequate here as the centre of a film which features her in virtually every scene. “What are these Reds? All I ever hear about is Reds!” she remarks with the same drippy inflection which was made so popular by Ali McGraw and Candice Bergan. Not that she’s given much help by the script. It’s full of dialogue like that, tediously expository and naïve. The Corringtons, who also wrote the abysmal Battle For The Planet of the Apes and the slightly better Omega Man, have little notion of characterisation and the one-note people presented here are laughable in terms of historical reality. Bertha’s transformation from dutiful daughter to pistol-packing momma is not only badly played by Hershey, it’s also completely unbelievable. As for the people surrounding her, they have only the substance which the actors can bring to them. In the case of ‘Big’ Bill Shelley, David Carradine is a strong enough performer to make him an engaging and sympathetic character but he seems to have been created only to become a martyr to the idiot rednecks who represent authority and his transformation into Trotskyesque intellectual seems unlikely at best. His father, John Carradine, makes a welcome appearance - another reminder of The Grapes of Wrath - but neither he nor other good actors like Bernie Casey and Barry Primus have much to work with. The inability of the film to create convincing representations of state authority is another serious weakness, especially compared to Milius’ Dillinger in which the clash between Warren Oates’ gangster and Ben Johnson’s tenacious lawman is elevated to epic proportions.

However, if you accept the episodic nature of the film and the weakness of the characterisation, Boxcar Bertha is good fun to watch. Scorsese’s pacing is dead-on target and the film is never boring even if it is sometimes laughably derivative and obviously based more on memories of old movies than any historical account. Interestingly, this was still a very noticeable problem in Scorsese’s most recent film The Aviator. His depiction of violence here is just as upsetting and visceral as it is in his more accomplished work and one of the impressive things about the movie is how its brutality grabs you emotionally, especially towards the end. A final massacre scene is particularly well shot with an electrifying use of fast cutting, close-up and varying degrees of slow motion.

Scorsese doesn’t make the mistake of glorifying violent death. Even in a trash movie like this, he has enough responsibility to realise that violence has to be treated responsibly and truthfully. This is one of the key contributions to film history of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde and the work of Sam Peckinpah, and Scorsese honours the tradition. The last ten minutes of Boxcar Bertha are something special; sombre, downbeat and emotionally shattering. You don’t expect this cheap exploitation movie to be as deeply affecting as it ultimately is and, in saving the best till last, Scorsese announces his arrival as a filmmaker to reckon with.

The Disc

Repackaged as part of the Scorsese collection, this disc of Boxcar Bertha is the same as the earlier MGM region 1 release. It offers a surprisingly impressive transfer, framed at 1.85:1 and anamorphic ally enhanced. Colours are impressive and the darker scenes sometimes offer a subtle contrast. More often, unfortunately, they tend to be a little muddy. Artifacting isn’t a problem and the slightly grainy appearance is satisfyingly film-like. Given the relatively unimportance of the film, its unlikely we’ll see a better transfer than this although it might be worth waiting to see what MGM provide on R2 later in the year.

The mono soundtrack is also quite good. Although relatively unspectacular, it keeps the dialogue and music sounding fine and, as several other critics have remarked, the difference between the quality of the sound on the film and on the trailer is quite staggering. A French mono track is also available.

The only extra is a too explicit, hard-sell trailer which is in mediocre condition. Subtitles are provided for the film in English, French and Spanish. The film is divided into 16 chapter stops.

Although its not an especially popular film, least of all with its director who seems to regard it as something of an embarrassment, I rather like Boxcar Bertha. Its seriously flawed, and Barbara Hershey is just awful, but its exciting and often funny and the climax is quite superbly directed. MGM’s presentation is quite acceptable and I hope that some people who get it as an unwanted part of the MGM Scorsese box will be as surprised as I was by how interesting it is.

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