Bloody Mama Review

In the wake of Public Enemies, Optimum releases Roger Corman’s take on the fearsome Ma Barker.

Bloody Mama is one of several gangster movies produced by American-International Pictures in the wake of the huge success of Bonnie and Clyde and Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. As such, it’s better than the inept Killers Three or the ineffable (and, for trash fans, unmissable) A Bullet For Pretty Boy, in which Fabian plays Pretty Boy Floyd. However, it’s not nearly as good as the two movies made later – Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha and John Milius’ brilliant Dillinger featuring Warren Oates as the definitive screen incarnation of John D. The appeal of the film, however, is simple and plainly revealed on the DVD cover; it’s the movie in which Shelley Winters gets to mow down people with a machine gun. Think of Heidi’s climactic rampage in Meet The Feebles and you’ll get the general idea.

Unfortunately, it takes an awful long time for Shelley to pick up her gun and much of the time is spent establishing a group of stereotyped characters in a vain attempt to make them seem credible. Historical accounts of the Barker-Karpis Gang suggest that Ma Barker was mostly along for the ride and that the criminal activities were organised by her eldest son Herman and a criminal associate called Alvin Karpis. The film merrily ignores any semblance of fidelity to the facts and turns the story into something resembling a Greek tragedy with Ma Barker as a wildly incestuous mother who forces her sons to share her bed and goads them into murder. Herman and Alvin are portrayed as completely psychotic with the latter, incarnated by Bruce Dern, made into a sado-masochistic bisexual. Needless to say, this livens things up but the sensationalism means that the film only works on the level of camp and never gets inside the characters and their enclosed circle in the way that Bonnie And Clyde so brilliantly managed. Indeed, if you want to see a better version of this story, take a look at Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang which is a heavily fictionalised take on the Barker-Karpis gang but a more convincing one.

Still, it’s made with a good deal of professionalism by Roger Corman, whose penultimate film this was, and John A. Alonzo’s cinematography is often very attractive. It’s also got a great cast including Pat Hingle, Don Stroud and a very young Robert De Niro. Best of all, it’s got Shelley Winters who is a big show in herself whether lusting after one of her hunky sons or going off the deep end when she realises what a useless bunch of indecisive blokes she’s living with.

Optimum’s Region 2 DVD of Bloody Mama is a strictly no-frills affair for a film which, frankly, doesn’t need much in the way of frills. The anamorphically enhanced 1.85:1 transfer is pretty good with nice, full colours and a fair degree of detail to make up for the somewhat tatty state of the print. The mono soundtrack is completely acceptable. There are no extras and, unfortunately, no subtitles.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Jul 23, 2009

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