Review: Boxcar Bertha

Set in the Depression-era South a young boxcar-riding woman of the title (Barbara Hershey) takes up with a labour union guy Big Bill (David Carradine) she falls in love with, and along with his black friend Von (Bernie Casey) and a not-so smooth conman named Rake (Barry Primus) form a criminal gang of-sorts. John Carradine (David’s father) turns up briefly as the nasty and powerful railroad owner who Big Bill gets on the wrong side of.

This meeting between legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman and the now revered director Martin Scorsese (“Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver”, “Goodfellas”, “Hugo”) is not a rip-off of “Bonnie and Clyde”, like you may expect. In fact, this 1972 film is probably closer to Corman’s own directorial effort “Bloody Mama”. Scripted by John and Joyce Corrington (“The Omega Man”, and “The Arena” for AIP and Corman), it’s a slightly better film than that one, but it all collapses in a ludicrous finale that has Bernie Casey blasting away at whitey, and someone else tortured in a Jesus crucifixion pose (The most ‘Scorsese’ moment in the entire film). Up until then, this is enjoyable stuff with an excellent, fiddle-heavy score by Gib Guilbeau and Thad Maxwell (their only film composition credit to date).

Barbara Hershey has one of her best roles to date, as both she and then-boyfriend David Carradine are solid. Bernie Casey is also terrific in support, especially in one scene where he appears to play the most polite train robber in cinematic history. As for the legendary John Carradine, he doesn’t give his best performance here but he also hadn’t entered his ‘seemingly drunk and will appear in any goddamn thing they pay him in alcohol for’ period yet. Although Scorsese gets a little too arty with the close-ups of random body parts, the sex scene is kinda steamy too. In fact, the film overall is a tad rough around the edges directorially and narratively with Scorsese trying too hard with some stylistic touches that don’t really add much beyond distraction. The characters also aren’t terribly well-established at the beginning. However, you’ll keep watching, it’s well-acted across the board and although it probably explains the choppy feel, the fact that it doesn’t stick around long means it doesn’t wear out its welcome at least. There’s simply no time for it to get dull. It’s also got typically decent production values for a Corman picture, as the well-known penny-pincher had an amazing knack for making cheap films that looked a lot more expensive than they were. It’s not the cheap exploitation fare you might expect given its producer, though the now A-list Scorsese doesn’t quite give it artistic legitimacy, either (He delivered the goods next time around with the clearly more personal and assured “Mean Streets”). Hell, I might’ve liked it more if it were trashier.

There’s a lot to like about this Depression Era film, but it just comes off as a near-miss in the end. It also might be a tad aimless and thinly-plotted for some. Terrific performances help.

Rating: C+


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