Martin Scorsese’s “Boxcar Bertha” (1972)

In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the first crop of film school graduates began entering the work force. Many were lured into the lucrative world of commercials, while others struggled to get their own films off the ground. Music videos hadn’t been invented yet, so that was not yet an option. One of the biggest employers of filmmakers during this period was B-movie kingpin Roger Corman, who built an empire off of cheaply made exploitation schlock pictures. He’s still doing it, aided and abetted by an even cheaper production pipeline thanks to the digital revolution, and he’s still pulling promising young film school graduates to work for him (a good college buddy of mine recently starred in one of Corman’s producing efforts, 2010’s SHARKTOPUS). It was through the Corman production pipeline that generation-defining filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and Brian DePalma first came up, and in the late 1970’s, Corman roped yet another promising filmmaker into his fold: director Martin Scorsese.

Fresh off the release of his 1967 debut feature, WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, Scorsese was hired to direct Corman and co-producer Samuel Z. Arkoff’s production of BOXCAR BERTHA, based on the novel “Sisters Of The Road” by Ben L. Reitman. For Scorsese, it was his first color feature, and it was strictly a for-hire project—Corman cast lead actors Barbara Hershey and David Carradine himself and oversaw the creative direction of the project. To his credit though, he recognized Scorsese’s immense talent and handed him a significant amount of artistic freedom. The result is an artfully realized film that transcends its exploitation flick roots and joined an emergent wave of lovers-on-the-run films from the era like Arthur Penn’s BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) and, later, Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973).

Shot over the course of twenty-four days in Arkansas, BOXCAR BERTHA takes place in the deep South during the rail-riding heyday of the Great Depression. Bertha (Hershey) is a young girl in mid-blossom, on her way to becoming a beautiful young woman. When her pilot father is killed in a plane crash, the newly orphaned Bertha falls in with a charismatic union organizer named Big Bill Shelly (Carradine). Big Bill is an outspoken critic of capitalism, and he’s followed wherever he goes by authorities suspicious of his Communist sympathies. After Bertha shoots a wealthy gambler following a heated argument at a card game, she ropes Big Bill into going on the lam with her, along with their friends Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and Von Morton (Bernie Casey). The foursome embarks on a life of crime, riding the boxcars from town to town and stealing from the rich to give to…well, themselves. As their notoriety grows throughout the land, they become aware that this won’t end well for them, so they might as well enjoy it for as long as it lasts. Their devil may care attitude turns them into folk heroes, admired for their open defiance of the authorities—right down to the bitter end.

Though he may not have had a say in the casting, Scorsese gets great work out of his performers, particularly Barbara Hershey as the titular Bertha. Hershey projects a virginal innocence to the undereducated and impressionable girl who grows into her own as she quickly adjusts to a criminal life on the road. The late Carradine, who enjoyed a brief career resurgence as a very different Bill in Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL VOLUME 2 (2004), plays the rakish folk hero Big Bill Shelly with a calm, inviting demeanor. Rounding out the band of crooks are Barry Primus and Bernie Casey as the foppish Yankee Rake Brown and the strong, quiet Von Morton, respectively. The inclusion of Casey’s character is especially effective, as it gives off a real sense of period authenticity to the film and gives the film a racial tension that helps us sympathize with the criminal antics of our protagonists as they fight against authorities painted as reprehensible racists and sexual sadists.

Director of photography John M. Stephens helps Scorsese craft a naturalistic look for BOXCAR BERTHA, punctuated with a heavy dose of techniques popularized by the French New Wave—handheld, documentary-style camerawork, realism and immediacy, impressionistic compositions and edits, rack zooms, etc. Scorsese applies these touches particularly well during the artfully rendered lovemaking scene, which plays out in fleeting closeups and echoes Scorsese’s prior use of the style during the love scenes in WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR. Scorsese has built his career off of dynamic camera movements that bring an unparalleled sense of life and energy to his work, and BOXCAR BERTHA is certainly no slouch in that department. The climax in particular sees Scorsese bravely experiment with new visual techniques, such as assuming the POV of someone getting blown back by a shotgun blast. While the technique itself is a little crude thanks to what little resources he had on set, Scorsese succeeds in injecting the scene with an exhilarating sense of impact and carnage. All in all, BOXCAR BERTHA’s low budget results in a lo-fi feel, an aesthetic that both works for and against Scorsese’s vision.

Given what we know about Scorsese’s immense interest in blues music and culture, BOXCAR BERTHA becomes very relevant indeed when it comes to talking about its music. Gib Guilbreau and Thad Maxwell provide a folksy score heavy on the harmonica and violin, resulting in a sound that’s very much country-bumpkin. Outside of the score, Scorsese uses a plethora of blues songs—specifically of the Mississippi Delta variety—, each selection curated and informed by his lifelong love for the genre and an intimate knowledge of its culture and history that he showed off in his 2003 documentary THE BLUES: A MUSICAL JOURNEY. This same knowledge and passion soaks through in every frame of BOXCAR BERTHA, making for a much richer experience than its makers probably aspired to initially.

Scorsese had little to do with the film besides on-set directing and editing, but BOXCAR BERTHA still manages to bear the mark of his participation (outside of his brief cameo as a brothel customer). For instance, he depicts the film’s violence as rowdy, chaotic, and messy. Like many of the protagonists that populate Scorsese’s work, the heroes of BOXCAR BERTHAaren’t actually heroes at all—they’re likable criminals, or antiheroes whose misdeeds eventually catch up to them and result in their downfall. It’s in Big Bill Shelly’s downfall that the film most overtly shows the authorship of its director. Bill Bill is nailed to the side of a train—essentially crucified. It’s a very potent image that brings to mind Scorsese’s Catholic heritage and the iconography of his religious upbringing, and it wouldn’t be the last time Scorsese crucified someone onscreen during his career.

BOXCAR BERTHA didn’t make much of a wave when it was released—Corman’s business model was to cheaply make films, quickly release them and reap as much profit as possible before moving on to the next one. Corman specialized in disposable entertainment, but Scorsese made a film that has somehow endured through the ages as a film that can’t be disposed of. While it lacks the authenticity of his NYC-based work, Scorsese’s vision manages to elevate the mediocre material to the level of historical curiosity.

Despite its status as one of Scorsese’s lesser films, BOXCAR BERTHA acts as unexpected turning point in the young director’s career. He could have very easily gone on to work with Corman again and become an especially good exploitation filmmaker. Thankfully for us, Scorsese’s friend and mentor, indie icon John Cassavetes, had the courage to tell him that “he had just spent the past year making a piece of shit”—his next work needed to be more personal, or else he ran the risk of struggling in B-movie obscurity. It was a very fruitful piece of constructive criticism for the young Scorsese to receive—and perhaps the most impactful—as his next project would take that advice to heart and subsequently launch his career in earnest.

BOXCAR BERTHA is currently available on standard definition DVD from MGM.

Produced by: Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff
Written by: John William Corrington, Joyce Hooper Corrington
Director of Photography: John M. Stephens
Edited by: Buzz Feitshans
Music by: Gib Guilbeau, Thad Maxwell