Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha (1972) movie poster

(1972) dir. Martin Scorsese
viewed: 09/15/09

I think I’d had this in my queue for some time, Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Boxcar Bertha, produced by the legendary Roger Corman who gave many a young filmmaker their first shot at filmmaking, though typically in the form of some form of exploitation or horror film.  And it’s this trope that suddenly interested me.

In some cases, Roger Corman’s “film school” as it is sometimes referred to includes not just Scorsese, but Francis Ford Coppola ‘s Dementia 13 (1963), James Cameron’s  Piranha II: The Spawning (1981), Ron Howard’s Grand Theft Auto (1972), and Jonathan Demme’s Caged Heat (1974), not to mention Peter Bogdonavich and Targets (1968) and Joe Dante’s “original” Piranha (1978).  There are probably loads more, not to mention actors and other film dudes.

Anyways, Boxcar Bertha is the first of this latest trope of movies that I’m planning to watch.  There will be more, in fact, many of the movies listed above will soon be watched and written about right here.

Boxcar Bertha falls within another category of films that I’ve been interested in.   These are films about “real-life” outlaws from the era of the Great Depression, ones who came to represent an anti-hero, anti-establishment popular figure in their own time, but rediscovered in the late 1960’s – 1970’s as representative of the anti-establishment mentality of the time.  Boxcar Bertha herself, though, from what I can tell, wasn’t so much a real person, but the film was adapted from an “autobiography” that was co-written supposedly by her, Sister of The Road: The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha – as told to Dr. Ben Reitman.  From what I can tell, this is something of a fiction.

The film doesn’t care.  It claims to be based on a true story.  And who knows anyways.  It fits within that brief grouping of films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Dillinger (1973).  Am I projecting or are there more of these?

Anyways, Scorsese worked with a tight budget and a tight timeline.  The film stars the young and beautiful Barbara Hershey (who knew how pretty she was when she was young?) and the late David Carradine.  The interesting thing in this film is that the outlaws come to robbery as a means to an end, largely inspired by Socialism and Worker’s Rights, though their crimes come to outweigh their qualities.

Not a rip-roaring fim nor a dud.  It could be interesting for a Scorsese scholar.  He shows the most flair in his final shoot-out scene in which Carradine is crucified to the side of a train.  The action is shot with some slick camera movement that is perhaps comes to greater fruition in movies like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980).

Bertha, as played by Hershey, is a sprite of sorts, a free-lovin’ gal, who is still true to her man.  She’s an outlaw and a rebel but maybe not all that intelligent.  Who knows?

The music is nice, with lots of blues and harmonica music.  The railroad of the period is well-evoked.

I have to say, the name of the film doesn’t really capture one’s imagination reflectively of what the film turns out to be.  I don’t know what you think when you hear the term “Boxcar Bertha” but the lithe and pretty Hershey is probably not the image.  It’s an interesting thing though, the original text.  The guy who wrote it was quite a character himself.  More research is due.

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