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Martin Scorsese got hired by Roger Corman, I presume, to make this "based on
true story" movie of a boxcar thief and robber named Bertha whom with some
other robbers stole their way into a small piece in history but got into
strife towards the end. It isn't one of his best pictures since he really
was just the director and the script and the actors did more work than he
needed to do on the picture. Like The Color of Money, it's a film that if
he didn't direct it it wouldn't of made much of a difference in the
Still, give credit where credit is due, and those (very few I might think) that heard what Cassavettes said to Scoresese after the movie got released (he told Marty that it was a piece of s*** and to work on something better- which he did with Mean Streets) should disregard it. Overall, Boxcar Bertha is a watchable and good piece of cinema with some decent performances and an overall feel that works in it's "tradition of Bonnie & Clyde" genre. Hershey and Carradine are also good. Just don't expect anything ground-breaking, unlike the next 5 out of 6 movies Scorsese would make in the next eight years after this. B+
Roger Corman's indirect influence on the 70s movie renaissance is often
overlooked. Many of that decade's key players served their apprenticeships
on Corman's quickies. Directors like Coppola, Bogdanovich, Bartel and Demme,
and actors like Nicholson, Hopper, Fonda, Dern, Stanton, and even De Niro.
Add Martin Scorsese to that list. 'Boxcar Bertha', his movie directly before the breakthrough 'Mean Streets', may not display his talent in full, but it is a surprisingly well shot and acted, and is an above average b-grade movie with a lot of entertainment value.
Like similar Corman productions from this period ('Bloody Mama', 'Dillinger', 'Big Bad Mama') it is a Depression era look at flamboyant criminals. An exploitation movie for sure, but exploitation with style and class. Barbara Hershey (who would reunite with Scorsese in seriously underrated 'The Last Temptation Of Christ') plays the title role, but the real star of the movie is her then real life partner David Carradine ('Kung Fu', 'Death Race 2000'), who gives a strong, charismatic performance. The supporting cast includes blaxploitation legend Bernie Casey ('Cleopatra Jones',etc.), Carradine's veteran character actor father John, and Scorsese/Ferrara regular Victor Argo ('Taxi Driver', 'King Of New York').
'Boxcar Bertha' is by no means one of Scorsese's greatest achievements, but it is nothing to be embarrassed about either. Check it out sometime. It's much better than you would think.
Scorsese refers to this 1972 Roger Corman quickie--he shot it in the deep South in twenty-one days--as his "exploitation picture." Funny, that--if it came out today, it'd be the height of the Arty Independent Film. Barbara Hershey and David Carradine are this movie's knockoff of Bonnie and Clyde; the script ain't much, but Scorsese storyboarded every shot and hoo doggie! This guy was the greatest shotmaker ever, even when he was on Skid Row. Rent it for Hershey's lyrical style and the chance to discern the fetus of a genius.
This was Martin Scorsese's second full-length feature film and it is a decent one. It's about a young girl in the 1930's who meets and falls in love with a union organizer, who also happens to be a thief. Together, they form a small gang and begin robbing trains as well as anything else they can get their hands on. The fun soon turns to fright when they become fugitives and are hunted down by law enforcement officers. There's action and entertainment but not a movie that you would expect from Martin Scorsese. It has none of his trade marks whatsoever. But do realize that this was one of his first films and try to respect that. I do.
Watching early films by classic directors in the midst of discovering
their trademark style always proves to be an interesting endeavor, and
Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha is no exception. Made the year before
Scorsese's breakthrough hit, and first tale of Italian American life on
the streets, Mean Streets, Boxcar Bertha shows the legendary Scorsese
adapting his own personal narrative style into a different niche, and
attempting what he referred to as a "genre picture". Boxcar Bertha was
first pitched as a simple exploitation film, but under the capable
guiding hand of Scorsese, the final outcome is a highly enjoyable and
surprisingly in depth portrait of the lifestyle and viewpoints of
depression era railroad workers.
Even in this early work, Scorsese shows his almost unparalleled ability to create a shockingly vivid and humane portrait of the working class; while the film may not be set in little Italy, the same themes ring true and the characters' voices are once again perfectly captured, speaking out against repression from the upper classes and the harsh conditions of their everyday lives. Scorsese also demonstrates a knack for creating a particularly believable period look and feel; indeed, the film's set design is particularly impressive, and the audience seems to live and breathe the harsh fumes of the boxcar at the height of 1920s depression.
It's also interesting to watch the gestation of several of Scorsese's definitive film-making techniques, even in an earlier effort - his use of high speed camera zooms, bold, dramatic editing and an aggressive, wonderfully bluesy musical score may seem slightly out of place for a film such as this, but these are all vintage Scorsese moments, which, when identified as such, just make the film all the more enjoyable. There are also some moments of not so subtle religious allusions, most memorably a gruesome and hard to watch scene involving Big Bill Shelley near the film's conclusion, another Scorsese trademark. However, forced to adapt his vision to the conventions of the style of film he was instructed to make, Scorsese was forced to include several highly unnecessary nude scenes and gunfights with absurdly fake blood, which can prove entertaining on a campy level, though they detract from the more interesting aspects of the film, on the whole. It's just a shame that the subject matter the budding director was given to work with was so intentionally sparse and simplistic, but the surprising depth and complexity he extracted from what at first appeared to be a simple Bonnie and Clyde knockoff billed as a "true story" only served as a precursor for the brilliant career which was to follow.
Considering the film's original intent, it is surprising to see such a varied array of talented performances on display. Whether it is a testament to Scorsese's nearly unparalleled skill as an actor's director or the enthusiasm and dedication of the cast remains to be seen, but either way, the principle players contribute surprisingly strong performances to the film. As the film's title character, Barbara Hershey establishes a solid foundation to the film's acting front, turning a character who could easily be dismissed as repulsive into one who comes across as endearing and hard not to like due to Hershey's laid back charm. Character actor David Carradine of recent Kill Bill fame also gives a resonant and charismatic performance as 'Big Bill' Shelly, the robin hood figure of the railroads. Bernie Casey overcomes his disappointingly underwritten role with a charming and very likable performance as a fellow robber, and Barry Primus is also enjoyable to watch as yet another accomplice, and the only New Yorker in the film. (there had to be at least one) It's also great to see father and son spar off as John Carradine plays the head of a railroad who is thrown into a battle of wits with the thief and saboteur played by his real life son, and the two quiver with surprising tension and energy during their on screen encounter.
While it is highly unlikely Boxcar Bertha will come across as appealing to a widespread modern audience, there is still much to appreciate here, and the film should be considered essential viewing for Scorsese enthusiasts. Despite the film's premise as a simple exploitation film, Scorsese found the voice and soul of the time and characters, which resonate almost as fully as in any of his better known pictures. Despite the film's occasionally choppy plot structure and admittably simple subject matter, Boxcar Bertha is still a highly enjoyable and interesting early Scorsese effort which merits seeing for any fans of the director, stars, or anyone interested in the historical context. Don't pass this off just due to the Corman exploitation influence - there's much more to it than that!
Rumor has it Martin Scorsese showed this film, his second, to John
Cassavetes, who labeled the movie "sh*t" and suggested Marty work on
more personal projects in the future. This advice prompted Scorsese to
direct Mean Streets, the first of his many masterpieces. Boxcar Bertha
is not one of them, but it isn't as bad as Cassavetes stated, either.
It's an average B-movie of the kind Roger Corman would offer to his
students (Marty among them).
Plotwise this picture has a more defined structure than Who's That Knocking at My Door: the setting is small-town America, the Great Depression is far from over, and a young girl named Bertha (Barbara Hershey) joins union leader "Big Bill" (David Carradine) in a violent protest against the people who are managing a railroad. When things turn ugly, the two lovers are forced to run for their lives, while still hoping they will prevail.
Hardly an original story (it's essentially the poor man's Bonnie & Clyde), but Scorsese does his best in making it appealing to audiences, shooting in beautiful countryside locations and obtaining strong performances from Hershey (who would later play Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ) and Carradine, most notably in a sex scene that, according to everyone involved, was not faked.
Beyond that, though, it is obvious Cassavetes had a point: there is nothing that gives Boxcar Bertha that unique Scorsese feel. He just did his job without finding anything in the script he could connect to; even the religious iconography used in the bloody climax seems to have been tucked in for no particular reason.
Still, the film is enjoyable and worth seeing, even just as the product of a young filmmaker still shaping into the master he was to become.
Before Martin Scorsese did classic work such as Goodfellas, Mean Streets, Gangs of New York, Casino, Cape Fear, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Boxcar Bertha was his first masterpiece of crime. I consider Boxcar Bertha to be the Road to Perdition of the 70's. I comment that because these films take place in the depression era, where jobs are lost and people are finding ways to make money. in the film, Barbera Hershey and David Carradine joined together to heist money and stay together. It's a masterpiece of crime, intelligence and an unforgetable ending that will leave you breathless. Even though for a small film that isn't recognizable as it is today thanks to filmmaker Martin Scorsese, people should get a chance to see a good movie instead of these phony blockbusters that are in movie theatres now.
Boxcar Bertha was based on the life of times of Bertha Thompson, during
the depression era in the 1930s. After her pilot father is killed right
before her eyes in a plane-crash, Bertha leaves the family farm, unable
to support herself alone. Bertha takes to the road, and soon meets-up
with Big Bill Shelly. Bill is a union organizer, who's determined to
exact justice from corrupt railroad barons. Bertha and Bill fall in
love, and travel together via hopping trains across the south. The two
turn to criminal activities, to survive.
Barbara Hershey gives a light-hearted, yet also poignant performance as Bertha. David Carradine conveys the conviction and passion, evident in Big Bill Shelly. His on-screen chemistry with Barbara Hershey, is palpable. Bernie Casey gives a strong, if understated performance as Bill's partner-in-crime, Von Morton. The morality angle of this film, like many made in the 70s, is ambiguous. The viewer knows that the characters clearly commit criminal acts. Yet there's also a sense of righteousness in their lawlessness, due to their quest to overthrow the cruel railroad men.
This is one of the more interesting 70s nostalgia films, and one of the very few to revolve around a strong female character. It is a bit too slow in spots, and could've used more exciting get-a-way scenes. But it makes-up for these minor flaws, by having characters with more emotional depth, than the usual crime drama. Boxcar Bertha is a fine film, that works very well overall.
Early, solid film from Scorcese with Hershey as the heroine, who along with
Carradine leads a pack of hoods who begin as communists and progress to
bigger and bigger crimes -- something of a variation on Corman's "Machine
Gun Kelly." Carradine and Hershey give good, but not outstanding,
performances. The direction is somewhat showy and involves a lot of
movement, typical of Scorcese's more evolved style as well. Roughly follows
the mold set by previous AIP gangster mama flicks, with the step up on the
violence meter each succeeding film seemed to demand.
Interesting also that this is the only Corman/AIP collaboration I can remember seeing from this period of time (72) when Corman's independent operations were becoming more successful all the time (w/ the nurse movies and stewardess epics cleaning up at the box office). I can only think that they saw it as a continuation of such a successful collaboration that it was impossible to resist getting together again one more time (though Corman claims to have been so absolutely disgusted by their treatment of his epic "Gasssssss" that he would no longer work with them after 1970). Anyone with information on how this collaboration took place will make me very grateful by forwarding this information to me.
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.
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