Boxcar Bertha August 18, 2018
1 Hr., 28 Mins.
hen the B-movie demiurge Roger Corman hired Martin Scorsese, the up-and-coming filmmaker with only a single film to his name, to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972), he was expecting a fun exploitation movie in line with the sonics of Bloody Mama, a Shelley Winters-starring gangster potboiler he had produced and helmed two years earlier.
Looking for a way to cash in on the latter project's financial success, Corman had, beforehand, appointed his wife, Julie, to research female gangsters. He hoped she would happen upon a narrative his production company, American International Pictures, could possibly cinematize. After some time, Julie came across the story of Boxcar Bertha, the fictional heroine of Sister on the Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha, a 1937 novel written by the sometimes-anarchist Ben L. Reitman. A loose adaptation was quickly greenlighted.
Corman saw promise in Scorsese’s debut feature, the no-budget, black-and-white street drama Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967), and enlisted him to bring Bertha to life. Scorsese, who had most recently worked as an assistant director on the 1970 Woodstock documentary, happily took on the project. Given a budget of $600,000 and a band of actors that ranged from unknowns to prolific B-movie dignitaries, he was provided only 24 days to shoot the feature. Production was confined to rural Arkansas.
The subsequent movie, which was further publicized by a provocative Playboy spread featuring the movie’s leads, Barbara Hershey, then 24, and her real-life lover, the 36-year-old David Carradine, is doubtlessly not what Corman had in mind. Boxcar Bertha is not a jovial, Gun Crazy (1950)-aping pulp adventure but rather a downcast, intentionally unrefined small-time gangster movie. It is reminiscent of Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), a Depression-era crime parable also interested in the inevitable tragedies that come with felonious behavior.
In Boxcar Bertha, romanticism, a characteristic so omnipresent in criminal-centric movies, is nowhere to be found. The violence, whose infliction tends to result in the spillage of cherry-red paint, is not cathartic and thrilling, which contrasts with the unofficial New Violence movement of the 1970s. It is chaotic and unpleasant; the ending, in particular, makes for a remarkably heinous denouement.
Knowing what kinds of gangster movies Scorsese would go on to make — namely Mean Streets, a masterpiece that would be released a year later — Boxcar Bertha works as something of a foreshadowing. Here, he is interested in the neuroses of his focal miscreants, as developed by the screenwriters Joyce H. Corrington and John William Corrington, and does not glorify their actions. This is something the filmmaker would better later on with character-driven, and never whitewashed, epics like Casino (1995) and The Departed (2006). Boxcar Bertha is one of Scorsese’s weaker pictures, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is an excrescence. It is best looked at as an example of a newcomer working with, and then making the most of, the meager materials with which he had been provided. Enjoyment can also be derived from its standing as a prelude in an imposing filmography.
It is a familiar exercise. It follows the eponymous heroine (Hershey) as she rises from lost ne’er-do-well to ne’er-do-well who doubles as a train robber, usually working with her coolheaded lover, Big Bill Shelly (Carradine), and a throng of other misplaced, money-minded criminals until tragedy strikes. The movie is surprisingly joyless. Scorsese, too ambitious to be making a frivolous exploitation picture anyway, attempts, as best he can, to parse together a ramshackle character study meant to rise above the cheap-thrill woodwork, unnecessarily. The feature might have worked if it played out in the way Corman had likely wanted it to from the beginning: as a sensationalist, gun-happy gangster-centered excursion that rides high on the fumes of lawless jollity until everything quickly comes crashing down. It comes close. But it is, more than anything, an uneasy merging of Scorsese’s and Corman’s conflicting aspirations. But how captivating it is to experience the product a great filmmaker in the process of coming into his own. C+