BOXCAR BERTHA, made at American International for producer Roger
Corman, was Martin Scorsese's
first Hollywood film, and he threw himself into it with the kind of
energy you would expect from a young man fresh out of film
school. Given $600,000 and a script based on a book about the
exploits of a famous whore/outlaw and her labor leader boyfriend in the
1930s, Scorsese created a decent enough film based on the constraints
Corman placed on him (must have nudity, must have violence).
doesn't exactly scream "Scorsese" in every frame, but the
script contains elements that coincided with the director's
concerns of religious life versus life on the streets, especially in
the final act. For movie fans, BOXCAR BERTHA's dialogue does
include a few quotes from classic films of the past like THE GRAPES OF
WRATH and .
The film, reminiscent
of BONNIE AND CLYDE,
looks good and has several above-average performances, especially from
character actor Barry Primus and future "blaxploitation" star Bernie
Casey as members of Bertha's gang. However,
David Carradine as the labor leader is sometimes stiff and awkward, and
is certainly out-acted by his father John, who plays the Bible-quoting
head of the railroad that is the frequent target of Bertha and
As will often be the
case with Scorsese
characters, we have to ask the question "Why should we care?", a
question this film cannot not answer. Barbara Hershey may be
to behold as the title character, but Bertha is a blank. We
know why she does what she does or what she is thinking at any
moment. Typical of exploitation films, Hershey is displayed
the nude several times during the film to help gloss over such concerns
as character motivation.
The general consensus is that BOXCAR BERTHA is neither a classic nor an embarrassment. Director and Scorsese mentor John Cassavetes had a different view. Upon being show the film by an excited Scorsese, he told the director "You spent a year of your life making sh*t." and suggested Scorsese follow with something he really wanted to do. The result was MEAN STREETS, the first classic Martin Scorsese film.
Martin Scorsese occasionally appears in his own movies, sometimes in Hitchcock-like cameos but more often playing characters. In BOXCAR BERTHA, he appears late in the film as a john who pays the prostitute Bertha an extra fifteen bucks to stay the night.