Boxcar Bertha (1972)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
This pre-Mean Streets toss-off is an outlier in Scorsese’s oeuvre: it doesn’t follow the broad plot-outline of Goodfellas, it’s not set in New York City, and there’s not even an Italian or a discernible Catholic (though the film ends with a crucifixion—ah, there he is!). There aren’t even any familiar rock ‘n’ roll favorites—the score is often just an engine-chugging harmonica—because those cost money, and this was produced by Roger Corman for American International Pictures as a followup to Corman’s successful and low-budget Bloody Mama. A zippy Barbara Hershey stars as the title wild child, and, yes, she’ll take off her clothes a few times, giving 1972 audiences what they apparently wanted. It’s that sort of movie.
Bertha is a Bonnie who flees Texas and rides the rails to meet her Clyde, rambling through the Depression-era South, meeting unionizers (a soulful David Carradine), gamblin’ men and chaingangers before she cofounds her own gang, a quartet of Robin Hood-like robbers of the railroad company, de facto folk heroes of the union (and, the Union?). Their America seems populated only by poor people and the cops who beat them up, but the fair amount of violence is rarely depicted seriously, even when it’s a shotgun blast to the gut. Cue some bluegrass, and yee-haw! There are glimpses of visual flair, vaguely hinting at the stylist to come, but this film is conspicuously impersonal, the work of a young artist concerned less with his legacy than his next paycheck. Fortunately, that’s when Scorsese is at his least self-indulgent—meaning, often, at his best. Henry Stewart (March 25, 26, 4:30pm, at the Museum of the Moving Image‘s Scorsese retrospective)