Sunday, February 20, 2011

Boxcar Bertha (1972)

          An exploitation flick whose importance to film history far outweighs its cinematic values, Boxcar Bertha is famous because it’s the movie that turned Martin Scorsese into a professional director. Prior to shooting this low-budget Bonnie and Clyde rip-off for producer Roger Corman, Scorsese’s film experience included studying and teaching at NYU as well as making a grimy black-and-white indie feature. Watching Boxcar Bertha, it’s easy to see the growing pains that Scorsese experienced once he was let loose with experienced actors and a proper camera crew. The story isn’t of particular interest, especially because the screenplay is so thematically formless and sloppily paced, but the gist is that after Depression-era drifter Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) falls in love with outlaw union organizer Bill Shelly (David Carradine), they form a band of robbers with several other misfits. This sets the stage for assorted repetitive run-ins with the agents of a corrupt railroad magnate, H. Buckram Sartoris (John Carradine). There’s plenty of nudity and violence (to say nothing of cloying old-timey music), but there isn’t much coherence or fun—it’s all way too episodic and nasty.
          Former NFL player Bernie Casey stands out among the cast, because he makes credible leaps from amiability to intensity as the lone African-American in Bertha’s motley crew. And while David Carradine and Hershey are both earnest and somewhat invested, they’re held back by the script’s inconsistent characterizations; their characters are alternately crusaders and victims. The real interest for movie fans, of course, is in parsing the movie for glimmers of Scorsese’s filmmaking style. Aside from the director’s onscreen cameo (he’s one of Bertha’s whorehouse clients), his signature is most clearly evident during the ultraviolent finale, when Scorsese goes way overboard with religious imagery and experiments with inventive ways to photograph people getting killed. It’s also interesting to note the various scenes punctuated by seemingly random cutaways of static objects, since those shots reflect early attempts at a device for building physical environments that Scorsese perfected by the time he made Taxi Driver a few years later. Ultimately, however, Boxcar Bertha is a bit of a jumble, because its artiness undercuts its value as drive-in trash, and it trashiness undercuts its value as art.

Boxcar Bertha: FUNKY

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