Boxcar Bertha is something of a lost Martin Scorsese film these days, its certainly the least celebrated film of his dazzling run of pictures from the 70’s even more so than the underrated New York New York. Until I got hold of the MGM DVD the film had eluded me for years – it rarely turned up on network TV, and in my years of collecting VHS I never managed to unearth a copy. The film made in 1972, and set in rural America during the Depression was another Roger Corman cash-in on the success of Bonnie & Clyde (1967, and followed Corman’s own Depression era exploitation film Bloody Mama, 1970), and stars a fresh faced Barbara Hershey and David Carradine as the outlaw lovers holding up the railroad company and giving the loot over to the railroad union.
For a Scorsese film of this vintage, Boxcar Bertha is remarkably restrained – it has neither the wild experimental style of Scorsese’s 1967 debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door, or the sheer stylistic brilliance of Mean Streets (which announced the arrival of a major American film maker), but is simply a competent exploitation film, complete with violence, sex, and the standard car chases (which Corman insisted upon). Scorsese interjects the film with some style here and there but overall it has a journeyman quality to it. Its possibly down to Corman’s ruthless shooting schedule – a one-shot 24-days, but perhaps Scorsese was putting his head down after his sacking from The Honeymoon Killers production in 1968 for making an art film out of something considerably more down and dirty. Still, it’s a well shot film and the performances are great – especially Barbara Hershey. Hershey and Carradine were a couple at the time and the loves scenes have a real warmth. Also among the cast is the great John Carradine as the railroad boss.
Boxcar Bertha may suffer from a sense of anonymity, but Scorsese fans will surely enjoy one of the climatic scenes where a character is crucified against a railroad car – the reverse angle shot of the nails splitting the wood looks forward to an almost identical shot in The Last Temptation of Christ some 16 years later, which of course included Barbara Hershey who played Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, it was Barbara Hershey who, during the course of shooting Boxcar Bertha, introduced Scorsese to Nikos Kazantzakis' great novel.
Postscript: In between writing this review and posting it here, I found out that David Carradine has passed away. I kept the review as it was, I didn’t want to rethink the film in the shadow of Carradine’s death. Carradine, while never an actor I truly loved left behind an eclectic and interesting body of work, appearing in among others Mean Streets (1973), Death Race 2000 (1975), Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg (1977), Larry Cohen’s Q The Winged Serpent (1982) and of course the eponymous character from Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003/4)