Martin Scorsese interviews his mother and father about their life in New York City and the family history back in Sicily. These are two people who have lived together for a long time and ... See full summary »
Based on "Sister of the Road," the fictionalized autobiography of radical and transient Bertha Thompson as written by physician Dr. Ben L. Reitman, 'Boxcar' Bertha Thompson, a woman labor organizer in Arkansas during the violence-filled Depression of the early '30's meets up with rabble-rousing union man 'Big' Bill Shelly and they team up to fight the corrupt railroad establishment and she is eventually sucked into a life of crime with him. Written by
Taut and teetering crime film set on the open road with aspirations, you feel, a little higher than to merely function as a stand alone exploitation piece.
Boxcar Bertha is an exciting, daring film set amidst a world falling apart at the very seams, a world in which four people come to lose all respect for law, order and others around them before beginning a spree of thieving and disturbing illegality. The film unfolds in the 1930s amidst Depression era America, with each of the four central characters that come to form the law-breaking quartet, of varying races; genders and classes so as to highlight an as broad-a sense as possible of whom exactly it is the nation's Depression is affecting. One of the members, and the only female one, is the titular harmonica playing Bertha (Hershey); somebody who must suffer the witnessing of her father's death by way of crop duster crash before going on to disturbingly fall in with the wrong crowd. It's established that her father may have been of a disciplinarian sort, a rail road worker commenting that her father wouldn't at all like it if he heard her using the profanities she does when he's up there his death signals a systematic death of rules and regulations, an additional 'freedom' away from the straight and narrow after which all Hell in her life will break loose. The other predominant member of the troupe is the charismatic Bill Shelly (Carradine), a character we first observe giving a rousing speech to fellow rail road workers about a forming of a union, instilling certain degrees that the man is a leader and has skills in being able to talk to people, or rouse them.
Following a run in with a gambler that ends in murder and the hitching up with African-American man Von Morton (Casey) as well as Northern state based businessman Rake Brown (Primus), who's come down with a false accent and an empty wallet to find work when they meet them in the same jail cell, the group go off on an ill-gotten venture of train robberies; law dodging and in the case of Bill and Bertha: sexual relations. The film is an early piece from American film-maker Martin Scorsese, a man who later made some of his best work in the form of exploring the worlds and minds of those either on the fringes of social order and in a state of marginalisation or the criminally infused who were morally vacant and at once so scummy and so putrid that to gaze on at their plights and actions was to do so with a grotesquely pleasing sense towards the craft but the polar opposite towards the people. In relation to this, Boxcar Bertha has more fun with showing characters of a policing sort, in the form of police troopers and so forth, to be of an evil; narrow minded or even racist ilk than it is concerned with trying to have us sympathise as much as possible with the leads and their narcissistic, criminal driven existence.
Shelly's early talk from when we first see him has him speak of rising up against authoritarian figures, the company and the system and as the police net on that particular occasion closed in on the band of Unionists we see that the escapades he comes to engage in now is merely an extension of that mentality and that state of living. Shelly's linking up with Bertha in a romantic sense is dealt with amply and pleasingly done; as established, her own ideas or sense of operating under an authoritarian figure in her father whom we're led to assume did his best to keep her on the straight and narrow effectively has her 'rebel' against figures of that nature when he dies - in that there's nobody left with any rules to feed off of. Their connection is preordained by the nature of their attitudes towards these sorts of figures, with Bertha's in relation to her father coincidental as Shelly takes it upon him self to manifest a problem with whatever State figures see otherwise in reaction to his Union idea rallying call.
Scorsese nicely documents the four of them banding together as a team, the odd leaf taken from Aurther Penn's book in that his film Bonnie and Clyde from a few years prior to this 1972 effort managed to explore what made the group of law-breaking, bank robbing bandits tick as human beings in between all the chaos, as the media demonised them, without ever really teetering over into glamorisation. A similar sense is applied here, four Robin Hoods robbing from the rich and keeping the loot for themselves set amidst barren, desert locales as a country and its economy come apart at the core with its rotten-minded and unlikeable police force following suit. Where cheap exploitation sprinkled with sex; violence and a simple enough premise complete with little in the way of plot appeared to be the aim starting out, Scorsese and the team appear to have elevated the material into something that stands up decades on as an exciting, angry piece teetering on the brink.
3 of 4 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?