Interesting AIP Depression-era gangster flick, from Martin Scorsese’s
salad days. Twilight Time, in association with 20th Century-Fox and MGM, has
released on Blu-ray BOXCAR BERTHA, the 1972 American International Pictures
actioner from producer Roger Corman, directed by Scorsese, written by Joyce
and John Corrington, and starring Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Barry Primus,
Bernie Casey, Harry Northup, Victor Argo, David Osterhout, and John Carradine.
Based on Commie agitator Ben L. Reitman’s fictional heroine, BOXCAR BERTHA
may mumble a few vague words about communists, socialists, and capitalists,
but in the end, politics have very little (thank god) to do with this fairly
decent, female-centric BONNIE & CLYDE variation. Twilight Time has delivered
up a punchy 1080p HD 1.85:1 Blu transfer, along with some liner notes, an original
trailer, and an isolated score track.
Lush, ripe, innocent Southern trash Bertha (Barbara Hershey) watches her crop-dusting Pop splatter all over the Arkansas clay because, well...it’s the Depression, and they needed the money, and no matter how much Pop complained to his wealthy farmer client about a faulty magneto (the plane’s not his), he just had to take that crate up in the air, see? Bertha attacks the farmer and his chauffer (what farmer has a chauffer?), with the aid of Pop’s mechanic, Von Morton (Bernie Casey) and nearby gandy dancer “Big” Bill Shelly (David Carradine), a loud-mouthed union organizer. Later, Bill deflowers a willing Bertha in a filthy boxcar after he incites a riot against the Reading Railroad company, disappearing in the morning after leaving money in her shoe (class-eee). At a hobo jungle, Bertha meets barely competent card sharpie Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and takes a shine to him. Soon, the lovers are fleecing the moneyed Southern elite...until Rake is caught cheating and Bertha shoots dead an outraged pigeon. Reunited with Bill, and promptly switching lovers, Bertha is the only one to escape a police set-up by some racist, murderous sheriff’s deputies, with the men barely surviving a massacre in their holding cell. Sentenced to a chain gang, they’re eventually busted out by Bertha, with the willing Rake, Bertha, and Von—and the deeply conflicted, reluctant Bill—turning into a train-and-bank robbing gang, intent on smashing Reading Railroad and its evil, rich capitalist owner, H. Buckram Sartoris (John Carradine).
Back in 1972, BOXCAR BERTHA caused a minor stir not at the box office, but rather in the gossip columns when stars and real-life lovers Carradine and Hershey claimed in a Playboy interview that their sex scenes in the movie were the real deal (it’s a testament to how uninterested mainstream audiences were in minor leads Carradine and Hershey—or unknown Scorsese at that time—that this salacious bombshell didn’t translate into boffo box office). Those same scenes now seem so abbreviated and downright chaste by today’s technically adroit phony movie humping, that BOXCAR BERTHA’s other claim to fame—being director Martin Scorsese’s first bona fide studio effort—is its chief historical calling card.
Not as mythical or epic or as exhilaratingly violent as Milius’ DILLINGER, nor as hilariously grotesque and spoofy at Corman's BLOODY MAMA, BOXCAR BERTHA isn’t the most memorable entry from the late 1960s, early 1970s revisionist Depression-era gangster subgenre, one born out of the phenomenal success of BONNIE & CLYDE (Bosley Crowther was more right than wrong that first time out...). BOXCAR BERTHA has become overrated now, too, by critics and scholars looking for auteurist links with Scorsese’ oeuvre (just read Twilight’s liner notes by overly enthusiastic-but-ultimately fuzzy Julie Kirgo). Certainly thematic threads that have interested Scorsese over the years—kinetic, unpleasant violence, revenge and pointless redemption, and guilt-ridden protagonists—show through BOXCAR BERTHA’s cheap, rushed production (a mere $600,000 budget and a three weeks-and-change shooting schedule).
And there are all kinds of intriguing ideas here—not exactly the norm for this kind of B exploiter. Some of Scorsese’s trademark visual stylistics are a bit crude at this early stage of the game (that opening, cutting back and forth between Hershey scratching her firm, naked thigh and Carradine driving a railroad spike, is bad Film School Symbolism 101), but most do work, particularly when he shoots for grungy Depression atmosphere and gauzy contrasts (Hershey’s time at a cat house is shot like a glossy dream). BOXCAR BERTHA may not have as many laughs as BLOODY MAMA or Aldrich’s THE GRISSOM GANG, but there’s a lot more sex here than DILLINGER (sex to Milius is either smacking a broad in the face or blasting a Tommy gun). And it isn’t inserted just to satisfy producer Corman’s reported edict for skin every fifteen pages or so in the script (more about this below). The obligatory car chase scene in Scorsese’s hands is messy and chaotic and over before we’re allowed to enjoy it, while some isolated shots at the politics of the era from the screenwriting Corrington duo (THE OMEGA MAN, BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES) amuse as much for their naiveté as for their incongruity in what sometimes appears to be a gangster skin flick. Best of all, the Corringtons and Scorsese take Carradine the male anti-hero—the one we expect to do all the speechifying and rectifying and gun-blastin’—and turn him into an almost completely ineffectual, even insignificant bystander to the events. He’s a rotten union organizer (he runs off with Hershey once the fists start flying), he’s a worse bank robber and escaped convict, and a downright terrible agent of revenge and justice (if it was deliberate to have the revenge subplot against John Carradine’s railroad magnate sort of fizzle out in New Wavish pointlessness—rather than just being undeveloped due to budget or script problems—than all the better).
That’s why it’s a shame that other elements in BOXCAR BERTHA couldn’t have been expanded or elaborated on for a more cohesive whole. Hershey’s Bertha is front and center the heroine of the piece (refreshing right there, considering the genre), and there are hints that the character possesses a fairly complicated sexuality that ties in directly with her gangster activities, as well as with how she drives the actions of her lovers. If we take Carradine’s assessment that Bertha actually is a virgin when he takes her, she’s a fairly eager one (why is she smiling when she finds his money in her shoe—an act that a lot of women would find insulting after their first time, to say the very least). And throughout the movie, that suggestion of an enjoyment of sex—and how Bertha uses it to survive or get what she needs—is resented by Carradine. She has sex with scam partner Primus when she doesn’t need to, and even kills to protect the little coward...and then drops him literally in a second once a reunited Carradine possessively grasps her breast. Carradine flips when she flirts with a guard to bust the guys out of the chain gang. When she’s on the street, after Carradine is jailed again and when her ill-gotten booty (couldn’t resist) has been stolen, she takes up employment at a cat house, after about two seconds of indecision. Scorsese may show her thoughtfully pining for Carradine...but he also shows her smiling and seemingly enjoying her new duties (there’s an absolutely remarkable shot of Hershey’s face being caressed by an unseen john, with a look of...of what I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the look of an unwilling woman being exploited for sex).
All of these intimations and insinuations about Bertha’s sexuality and its power (and conflicted aims) are fascinating as hell...but they’re doggedly unresolved, not deliberately for the sake of complexity, but I suspect rather because of a not-quite-there script, and a director too rushed and financially strapped to work it all out. A lot of critics and fans of BOXCAR BERTHA mention the finale as an all-saving grace for this sometimes shaky exploiter (Carradine’s crucifixion is certainly memorable—if almost comically outlandish—but that breathtaking shotgun shoot-out looks as modern and arresting as anything out there today). It’s certainly a cool bit of proto-Scorsese pyrotechnics, but it puts emphasis on the wrong character as we metaphorically “walk out of the theater.” Frankly...I was more interested in Bertha’s revelations and redemption.
Twilight Time's 1080p HD 1.85:1 widescreen transfer looks quite good. Color values are subtle, fine image detail is strong, grain is filmic and tight, blacks solid, and no compression issues. Very nice. The DTS-HD mono audio track is re-recorded at a strong level; dialogue is clean. English subtitles are available. Extras include an isolated music track, Julie Kirgo's liner notes and an original trailer. (Paul Mavis)
BACK TO REVIEWS