Boxcar Bertha (1972)
The names Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff should be as common as salt and pepper to fans of the early days of the exploitation market in the world of film. Their names turning up as producers on this budget minded would be Bonnie and Clyde tale falls right into line. Further still, if you know anything about Corman’s history of employing young filmmakers then seeing this is a Martin Scorsese film by way of Corman’s guidelines might not come as a surprise but for the uninitiated, you’re to see an iconic director just coming into his own with some striking footage teasing us with what was yet to come in the years ahead.
It’s a depression era tale that sees Barbara Hershey in the title role. Following the death of her father in a crop dusting accident she’s going to find herself teaming up with David Carradine, Bernie Casey and Barry Primus for a good majority of the film. Depression era tales are prime topics for using stock footage in black and white and Scorsese does a masterful job of setting the tone as the film fades back to color following the credits with pro-union Carradine trying to convince railway workers to demand fair treatment and better wages. He’s all but incited a riot as he and Barbara wisely hop a freight to make their getaway. A boxcar loaded with hay in a Corman production? Yeah it’s time for the requisite topless scene and as far as Corman productions go, it’s as tasteful as can be done under Scorsese’s watch.
From Carradine she’ll move on to meeting card shark Primus. When she saves him from certain death after being caught cheating at cards he’ll move into her inner circle with Carradine and Casey. Hobo camps and railway bulls await them and though he doesn’t make an appearance, one almost expects Ernest Borgnine’s vicious Shack to turn up from his classic 73 film Emperor of the North. When caught riding the rails for free the trio of men find themselves in a two bit jail. It’s here that Carradine’s friendship with Casey will quickly be chastised from those bearing racial prejudices. Beatings and shotgun violence follow.
Time for Bertha to turn into Miss Bonnie Parker and that’s just what happens when she busts the boys out of a chain gang road crew turning to a life of crime. The target is always the railroad. From banks holding the railroads money to the rich people that ride the fancy boxcars, no one is safe now that Barbara and her trio of gun toting Robin Hoods are on the loose.
Now quickly if you had to join the legendary John Ford to Martin Scorsese in one move what actor’s name would you come up with and don’t bother naming Kevin Bacon. If you thought of David’s father John Carradine then you’d be right so please give yourself a pat on the back.
John is the railway baron who wants the gang put down and hires the muscle to do it. John’s vendetta just makes the gang take more chances and it’s one that will allow father and son to share a couple scenes together during a heist followed by a trap. For the balance of the film, Hershey will play center stage as she becomes separated from the gang which leads to a scene where she’ll be reunited with Casey in a “colored” bar which is again wonderfully staged by the director.
It’s the final few minutes of the film that Scorsese will leave his prints all over the negative and it’s one that isn’t forgotten easily. I won’t ruin it for those that haven’t seen the movie other than to state I’ve always loved how Scorsese uses Bernie Casey’s screen presence in the final bloody frames of this 90 minute “B” that far outshines it’s budget and drive-in fare release schedule.
The playful and sexy Barbara is easy to fall for when you’re a teenager discovering movies. She’s a farm girl whose innocence only endears her to the audience. Among us youngsters that bit of nudity led to passing the title on to those at school who had a VHS machine in the house. Don’t forget that this is long before the internet changed things on access to getting a glimpse of a breast or thigh. I’ve seen the film a number of times now over the years and it’s Scorsese’s handling of the nude scenes that give it a more artistic slant far and above most of Corman’s output that pretty much stipulated the leading ladies have to remove their tops. I also love how the folk music is incorporated into the film which lends to the authentic feel of the times. Nothing gives you the feel of a train better than a good harmonica tune. Walter Hill would do the same thing with his masterful Hard Times in 1975 by highlighting the music of the depression.
Both David Carradine and Barbara Hershey were on the verge of bigger things following Boxcar. Carradine would sign on as Caine in Kung Fu and make dozens upon dozens of films of varying success until his death in 2009. Hershey never seemed out of work either and scored two Best Actress Awards at Cannes in the late 80’s. Apparently the two were a couple off screen during this period and had a child together. Carradine would make a brief cameo in Scorsese’s breakout film, Mean Streets and Hershey would appear as Mary Magdalene in his Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.
Easy to find if you’re looking for it on DVD or score a copy of it on blu ray from Twilight Time if you can. The original poster? No idea but there is one here in the vault at Mike’s Take that’s not for sale.