Life made her an outcast. Love made her an outlaw.
There’s something beautifully democratic about the Roger Corman model of film production: give an eager young director a limited budget, some B-level stars, an exploitation content quota and a tight shooting schedule, and see what they deliver. This process produced a lot of junk, of course, but every once in a while you’d run across something like Boxcar Bertha: a ragged but ambitious little crime movie directed by a young Martin Scorsese.
The film claims to be based on a true story, not realizing that the novel it’s based on (Ben L. Reitman’s Sister of the Road) is a work of fiction merely inspired by the true stories of several different women. In any case, the tales centers on Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey, Hoosiers), a cheerful drifter who stumbles into a relationship with charming hobo Big Bill Shelley (David Carradine, Kill Bill). Their romance begins as a simple Depression Era survival story, as they wander across the American south in search of work, food and shelter. Like so many people trapped in that cycle, they eventually turn to a life of crime. Teaming up with New York gambler Rake Brown (Barry Primus, Absence of Malice) and African-American harmonica enthusiast Von Morton (Bernie Casey, Guns of the Magnificent Seven), Bertha and Bill become two of the most notorious criminals in the country.
For much of its running time, the film seems to fit more comfortably within the ranks of Corman’s over-the-top exploitation pictures than it does with the rest of Scorsese’s early work. The requisite surplus of violence and nudity is provided, as are the scenes in which characters hurl racial slurs as if they’re making up for lost time. Even so, there’s an empathy that shines through the sensationalism, as Scorsese turns the characters into complex human beings pushed into extreme behavior by the circumstances of their lives. These characters didn’t ever imagine themselves turning into Bonnie and Clyde, and some of them (Bill in particular) seem to carry a real burden of guilt on their shoulders.
Hershey’s performance is a vibrant, compelling piece of work. The film often feels like an ensemble movie, but every so often the men fade away and Bertha suddenly snaps into focus. While Bill agonizes over his moral compromises, Bertha teaches herself to adjust to whatever new reality she’s forced into. Given the direction the plot pushes her in during the film’s final act, it becomes easy to see why Scorsese decided to cast her as Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ.
Speaking of the final act: the closing moments of the movie are the moments that find Martin Scorsese, Catholic Auteur revealing himself in surprisingly strong fashion. Without much warning, the film suddenly veers into an incredibly unsubtle but undeniably striking religious allegory punctuated by the film’s most savage violence. Director John Cassavettes’ reported reaction is tough, but fair: “Marty, you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. It’s a good picture, but you’re better than the people who make this kind of movie. Don’t get hooked into the exploitation market; just try and do something different.” I think it’s fair to say Scorsese took that advice to heart.
Boxcar Bertha (Blu-ray) offers a pretty respectable 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. Considering the film’s minimal budget, it still looks fairly sharp and clean. The image can be a little soft at times, but flesh tones are natural and detail is generally fairly strong. The DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is a bit muffled on occasion and there are moments when the music sounds a little too harsh, but gets the job done. Supplements are disappointingly limited: an isolated score track, trailers and a booklet featuring an essay by Julie Kirgo.
Boxcar Bertha certainly isn’t among Scorsese’s top-tier works, but it’s a compelling early effort with a lot of interesting flourishes.