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Savant Review:

Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha
MGM Home Entertainment
1972 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 92 min.
Cinematography John Stephens
Art Direction
Film Editor Buzz Feitshans
Original Music Gib Guilbeau, Thad Maxwell
Written by Joyce H. CorringtonJohn William Corrington from the book Sisters of the Road by Bertha Thompson and Ben L. Reitman
Produced by Roger Corman, James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Boxcar Bertha is made more to the formula of AIP's other early '70s rural crime pictures - Dillinger and Bloody Mama, than it is a debut Martin Scorsese epic. Yet it bears his personality in some striking cinematic touches. A curiosity, yes, but still more coherent and less exploitational than the other two, and despite its inadequate production values, is also the most interesting.


Young Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) watches as her cropduster father is killed while flying an unsafe plane under an employer's threats. Adrift in the South of the Great Depression, she hooks up first with maladroit Yankee cardsharp Rake Brown (Barry Primus), and then with labor agitator 'Big' Bill Shelley (David Carradine). Together with fellow fugitive Von Morton (Bernie Casey), they rob and harass the Reader Railroad and its tyrannical owner, H. Buckram Sartoris (John Carradine), whose shotgun-toting special deputies are never far behind. Big Bill goes to prison and Bertha becomes a prostitute, but fate won't keep them apart forever.

Dillinger seeingly exists mostly to give director John Milius the chance to shoot a lot of guns. Bloody Mama is mainly an opportunity for Shelley Winters to overact, and is almost a self-parody. Boxcar Bertha, the story of a jailbait vagrant and her Bonnie Parker-like crime spree, has less to work with but comes out on top anyway.

Made in the days of total studio confusion, even at AIP, Boxcar Bertha doesn't know if it is trash or art. Like Jim Thompson or Philip K. Dick being forced to insert sex scenes into their pulp novels, there's nudity and lovemakin' in almost every reel of this 'rebels versus the evil railroad' epic. Every part is woefully underwritten, but the leads carry the show with distinction. David Carridine is fine as the directionless Union firebrand, never having much of a plan of action and falling into his crime spree almost for lack of options. It's sort of a warm-up for his role as Woody Guthrie a few years later in Bound for Glory. Barbara Hershey is as game a duck as there ever was, and plays a reasonable naive hayseed. She's a natural actress, as she proved in her later powerhouse performances, and here she holds the center. It's just too bad that boxoffice wisdom dictated all the nude scenes - with her straight long hair and hippie looks, those sections of the film tend to look more like a Malibu love-in than a roll in the hay with Daisy Mae.

Barry Primus is somewhat less convincing as the conman who's always showing his cards at the wrong time. In a movie where bogus Southern accents are all over the place, having the rednecks single him out as a Damn Yankee by voice alone doesn't work as well as it should. Bernie Casey might have been expected to carry the blaxploitation end of the marketing strategy for Boxcar Bertha, but instead is given a serious and meaty role well beyond his duties as shotgun avenger. John Carradine does a brief but solid spin as the railroad baron, staying more subdued than normal ... perhaps he didn't want to set a bad example for son David.

Where Boxcar Bertha is sorely lacking is production value. The costumes are split between off-the-rack ware and imitations of period clothes that have little texture or presence. Bertha is supposed to be a tramp in a stolen ball gown, but the fancy dresses around her have the cheap look of hasty improvisation. The set dressers probably had little or no time to do their work, resulting in tents with paint splattered on them to try and lend some texture, and some derelict buildings similarly daubed here and there in a desperate attempt to add visual interest. There's no lack of some nice vintage steam engines, which is good because without a railroad cooperating Scorsese wouldn't have had a movie at all. There are good period vehicles and at least one car that's five or six years too new - a Sheriff is driving a nifty '38 La Salle or Willys or something. A much smaller touch is the waist chain worn by the nude Hershey, which looks like a hippie accessory (which she may have insisted upon), rather than anything from the Depression period.

The director has some fun with the casting and character names. Two railroad thugs are named Pressberger and Powell, which proves Scorsese's infatuation with the Archers was already firmly in place in '72. One of them is a dead ringer for an early MGM actor who was spoofed in the Who Killed Who? Tex Avery cartoon - a pudgy guy with a bowler hat and a Hitler moustache. A lawyer who plays cards with Rake in an early scene is the same unbilled blackjack dealer in producer Corman's X - The Man with X-Ray Eyes of a decade before. Perhaps Corman remembered him because he was a good card handler? One of the low-down deputies who falls for Bertha's charms is played by the Scorsese regular who was one of the cabbies in Taxi Driver, the one who carried a piece of bathroom tile from a celebrity's house. It's a sure mark of a '70s film-school-wonder director, when they emulate the classic directors' penchant for building a stock company. Scorsese gives himself a fleeting bit as a sportin' house Johnny.

Unlike John Milius' bandits in Dillinger, who are unnaturally aware of the folkloric heritage they will leave behind, the rebels of Boxcar Bertha don't have a clue about politics and are totally unclear about their purposes. Big Bill seems to be writing something near the finish, but we never find out what - for the whole movie he's fightin' the railroad simply on principle. When they at one point have enough money to run away to California  1 Bill still doesn't know what to do. Scorsese's lost souls make a lot more political and historical sense.

Martin Scorsese's first outing with violent material shows him using self-restraint and exercising a personal style. Nowhere near as bloody or as gun-happy as the Milius or Corman pictures, the gunplay here is punctuated by short takes and expressive camerawork, such as the fast push-in on Bernie Casey's first victim in the final turkey shoot. When Bertha and Big Bill are beaten by railroad goons, they're really bashed up, and it's impossible not to feel the pain of the blows.

The one knockout scene is the almost wordless ending, which will be too symbolic for some and perhaps an imitation of Kubrick for others. It's no big secret but it surprised me when I first saw it, so I won't give it away. Scorsese ends his first film with a situation that might represent his attitude toward all the self-destructive, socially unworthy antiheroes he would throw at us in the following twenty years. The action is simple and self-contained, and ties up the relationships of the characters with the railroad with a biblical flourish. It's obvious that he knew his first commercial feature was just too underfunded to be the film he wanted to make, but Scorsese made sure he had a memorable ending.

MGM's 'Avant-Garde Cinema' DVD of Boxcar Bertha presents a very clean anamorphic print that looks a lot better than an old (Image?) laserdisc that was full-frame, faded, and ugly. The show looks quite nice, considering how artless is much of the cinematography. The soundtrack is particularly good, mixing imitation Bonnie & Clyde bluegrass music with some authentic-sounding indigenous blues. The only extra is an okay trailer, and the cover art is an attractive sepia photo of Barbara Hershey, instead of the expected collage of head shots. Mr. Scorsese has a good relationship with MGM (who control his Raging Bull), so it's regrettable that he didn't provide what would surely have been a fascinating commentary track.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Boxcar Bertha rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: March 12, 2002


1. They do make some suspiciously grandiose scores, here - a $12,000 railroad payroll? The rural bandits of the '30s would have fainted to get that kind of cash in one haul - it's enough to take all of them to Europe!

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