Sunday 27 April 2008

Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Here's one I've been waiting to see for quite some time. It's a Roger Corman film, in the sense that he produced it and if I remember correctly, financed it, but it's the first full length film directed by Martin Scorsese. Everyone in the industry it seems started out with Corman, doing whatever needed doing at the time, and Scorsese was no exception. This one was probably supposed to be a quick and easy ripoff of Bonnie and Clyde, costing only $600,000 to make, but Scorsese chose to turn it into something a lot less exploitative. Sure it's got its fair share of sex and violence but the violence doesn't tend to be the glorifying kind.

It claims to be based on the autobiography of Boxcar Bertha Thompson, Sister of the Road, though she apparently turned out to be an invention of the author, Ben L Reitman, and Scorsese apparently took so many liberties with the storyline that it hardly bears much resemblance to the book. As portrayed by Barbara Hershey, she's a free spirit in the depression era American south whose father dies in a plane crash and she and her colleagues get caught up in violence almost by accident and become fugitives from justice. These colleagues include Big Bill Shelly, a high profile union activist; Rake Brown, a small town yankee gambler and coward; and Von Morton, a negro railroad worker with a harmonica.

First, Bertha shoots a gambler who is about to shoot Rake Brown, who he'd just caught cheating at cards. Then, everyone but her is jailed for riding the boxcars and she springs them from the chain gang. After that it's robbing trains or parties and kidnapping, all the while targetting the railroad against which Shelly has a personal vendetta.

Apparently Scorsese screened the film for fellow actor/director John Cassavetes who told them that he'd made a piece of garbage and that he should make a personal film instead. Scorsese took him at his word and promptly made Mean Streets, upon which his reputation started to build. However I never did like Mean Streets, which took me four attempts to get through and this one's an easier viewing for sure. It's a rough and ready production, that's for sure, but it's impressive for the budget and Hershey is very believable as Bertha.

Opposite her is David Carradine as Big Bill Shelly, playing for the third and last time in the same film as his father. He and Hershey were an item at the time, having something of a stormy relationship, and apparently the love scenes here were not faked. Carradine is often slated for not being much of an actor but I've always enjoyed his work and to my eyes he's fine here. Rake Brown is Barry Primus and Bernie Casey makes up the four top credits as Von Morton. All are fine but it's definitely Scorsese's show. I'm not a big Scorsese fan but he definitely does a lot more here than he had any rights to do given how much money he had to play with. There are some interesting visuals and set pieces and the film certainly makes its presence felt. There's also a solid use of old time blues, hardly surprising for Scorsese. It's a rough debut, but a good one.

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