BOXCAR BERTHA

(1972)
With Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Barry Primus, Bernie Casey, John Carradine
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Reviewed by JB

      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).  It 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 WIZARD OF OZ.

     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 company's hijacks.

     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 lovely to behold as the title character, but Bertha is a blank.  We never know why she does what she does or what she is thinking at any moment.  Typical of exploitation films, Hershey is displayed in 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.

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IS THAT WHO I THINK IT IS?:

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.