Friday, March 20, 2015

Bloody Mama (1970)

          Among the better films in the seemingly endless cycle of Depression-era crime flicks that Roger Corman produced while capitalizing on the success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), this ramshackle drama is a grim piece of work with occasional flashes of real insight and sensitivity. As a whole, the movie is quite rickety, thanks to erratic storytelling and the unsuccessful use of montages that blend newsreel footage with voiceover to place the activities of the main characters into a historical context. Yet for periodic stretches of screen time, the picture feels substantial.
          Directed as well as produced by Corman, Bloody Mama purports to tell the story of real-life 1930s criminal “Ma” Kate Barker, who led a gang comprising her adult sons and various hangers-on during a violent string of armed robberies. Right from the beginning of the film, Corman tries to present a psychological reading of the title character—viewers meet Kate as a young girl, when her brothers hold her down on the ground while her father rapes her. Once the picture introduces Shelley Winters as the middle-aged Kate, mother to four redneck kids, the idea is that viewers should understand what made Kate so tough. As with similar imagery appearing throughout the film (e.g., Kate holding one of her sons in his arms while he cries himself to sleep after murdering a young woman), the psychological stuff only goes so far. Beyond the dissonance of juxtaposing high-minded material with such tacky signifiers as gory murders and gratuitous nudity, the movie simply isn’t deep or literate enough. The script, credited to Don Peters and Robert Thorn, rushes through episodes covering several years, which has the effect of reducing characterizations to snapshots, and the slavish devotion to generating commercial elements means the narrative periodically stops dead while something lurid happens.
          Nonetheless, some of the characters and performances resonate. Don Stroud is menacing as the psychotic Herman Barker, while a young Robert De Niro gives an alternately frightening and goofy turn as the drug-addled Lloyd Barker. Playing the other two brothers, Clint Kimbrough and Robert Walden don’t have much to do, and in fact they’re overshadowed by the sterling work of costar Bruce Dern, who plays latter-day gang member Kevin Dirkman with his signature idiosyncratic edge. Pat Hingle’s vulnerable performance as a kidnapping victim and Diane Varsi’s bitter portrayal of a cynical prostitute-turned-moll make distinct impressions, as well. Alas, leading lady Winters is the movie’s weak link, since her cartoonish and shrill performance exists in an unpleasant dimension all its own. Oddly enough, Winters played a comical (and pseudonymous) version of the same role a few years earlier, portraying Ma Parker in two 1966 episodes of the camp-classic TV series Batman. Her work suited that milieu more closely.

Bloody Mama: FUNKY

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