“How can I be tired? I ain’t done an honest day’s work in months.”
Everyone has to start somewhere, and for director Martin Scorsese, that place was 1972’s Boxcar Bertha. The film was a low-budget effort (apparently $600,000 was available) and it shows. The production was made under the wing of well-known B film producer Roger Corman and released by American International Pictures. MGM has now released the film on DVD as part of its “Avant-Garde Cinema” series.
Bertha loses her father in a plane crash and takes to the rails riding in boxcars. She soon runs into union man Big Bill Shelly who’s intent on making the railway improve working conditions for its employees. After a stint in jail for his efforts, Bill Shelly gets out and soon teams up with Bertha again. Together, they begin a series of train robberies that makes them famous throughout the South. But the railroad is intent on tracking them down and an ingenious trap seems likely to end the pair’s run, with deadly results.
Whatever happened to good B movies? In their heyday, the best of them took advantage of expensive sets constructed for A movies; they utilized a vast stock of contract players including good young performers on the way up and good old ones on the way down; their directors used interesting editing and lighting approaches to mask the lower production values that their smaller budgets dictated; their stories were economically written without the padding often added to justify movies up to two hours and longer. Of course, much of the best B production gradually disappeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the film studios divested themselves of their theatre arms and television began to provide essentially what the B film had offered. B films became the stock in trade of a few smaller independent producers and newer independent studios that had an eye to the bottom line. Unfortunately, the odds of a good quality result declined as the numbers declined.
One of these newer studios was American International Pictures (AIP), founded by Samuel Arkoff and James Nicholson in the 1950s, which proceeded to gain a bit of a reputation on the strength of horror films from Roger Corman and teenage beach party flicks featuring the likes of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. AIP’s moment in the sun was brief, however, as the social changes of the 1960s soon made their product passé (although the reputations of some of Vincent Price’s films for Corman have managed to survive). Boxcar Bertha was one of the later efforts to come from the studio, and viewed now, 30 years after its release, it reflects few of the positives of the best B films and many of the excesses characteristic of films of the early 1970s.
As already mentioned, the film was director Martin Scorsese’s first feature film of any consequence. In many ways, it’s a crude effort although one can certainly detect hints of the Scorsese style, particularly his tendency to portray graphically the ugliness and painfulness of violence. The numerous beatings that Big Bill Shelly is subjected to are good examples, although the bloody shootout at the film’s end is executed in a cartoonish fashion that diminishes its impact to virtually nothing. Scorsese, for those paying attention, was already signaling his fondness for the work of British director Michael Powell, by naming a couple of his characters after Powell and Powell’s collaborator, Emeric Pressburger. Painfully unsuccessful in the film are the obvious attempts at symbolism such as the Christ-like crucifixion on the side of a boxcar.
The film’s main problem is its story, purported to be based on characters from Bertha Thompson’s autobiography as related to Ben Reitman who was alleged to be Al Capone’s personal doctor. (With that pedigree, I’m already questioning it.) The tale is essentially a variant on the saga of Bonnie and Clyde except it lacks the style and intelligence of that film. Other than the fact that the story takes place during the depression, there’s never any sense of the passage of time or establishment of place in Boxcar Bertha. Maybe that’s because the characters always look the same, and the trains and railyards and background countryside seem interchangeable from one scene to the next. One must blame both the script and Scorsese (although obviously constrained by the budget) for these latter failings.
The cast features Barbara Hershey in the title role, with David Carradine as Big Bill Shelly. Both were early in film careers that extend to the present day and neither is particularly compelling in Boxcar Bertha. Hershey still seemed like a raw talent who was unsure of whether to play her role seriously or for laughs. Carradine is more polished, but he always seems to bring a sort of smart-assed truculence to his acting, as he does here, that tends to turn one off. His father, the well-known character actor John Carradine, has a minor role as the owner of the train company.
MGM provides a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that’s not bad at all. Given the film’s original budget, the image is quite sharp and colourful with little visible grain, although the darker scenes tend to be a little murky. There are few obtrusive scratches or speckles and edge enhancement is negligible.
A Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound mix is provided that does a more than adequate job of delivering the dialogue-driven film. Background music sounds natural and pleasing and the few action scenes actually have a bit of punch to them. A similar type of French audio track is provided along with sub-titling in English, French, and Spanish.
The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer.
I suppose it’s a good thing that someone who liked this film was in a position to give Scorsese another opportunity — which he capitalized on with Mean Streets — but that doesn’t mean you have to waste your time with this stiff of a film. MGM provides a reasonable transfer with its standard supplement of only the theatrical trailer.
The court condemns this one to stay in the boxcar and sends it on to points unknown. Court is adjourned.