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Boxcar Bertha

A blend of American International's highly commercial, drive-in sensibility and director Martin Scorsese's overheated obsession with violence and redemption, Boxcar Bertha was Scorsese's Hollywood movie debut. He had made one earlier full-length feature, Who's That Knocking at My Door?, which announced many of the themes and cast members soon to appear in so many of Scorsese's later films: Harvey Keitel, city violence, rock music, religion, and the smoky, grimy, near-empty but alluring vice hangouts of urban layabouts and Mafiosi wannabes. But Boxcar Bertha introduces an alternative Scorsese, one who receives much less attention from critics. The films of this Scorsese have female leads and road-movie narratives, usually concern themselves with a spiritual odyssey, and often also have a radical political component. These motifs pop up in pictures such as Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and New York, New York (and in their unique way even in The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun). Boxcar Bertha was an assignment from Roger Corman at AIP, and Scorsese seems to have taken it on as a career move. In that regard the film did its job, making back quite a bit on its $600,000 budget, and it inadvertently led to Mean Streets. But in all other aspects, it is a noble bore. Based very loosely on Bertha Thompson's "as told to" book Sister of the Road, the movie was born of a desire to cash in on the Bonnie and Clyde craze and its Southern crime spree mimics, even at the rather late date of 1972. After Bertha (Barbara Hershey) watches her pilot dad die because his boss made him go up to dust fields in a faulty plane, she hits the road in Depression-era America (the film was shot in Arkansas), where she accrues a sort of fan club. The members include her dad's mechanic Von (Bernie Casey), a railroad labor organizer named Big Bill Shelley (David Carradine), and an ersatz riverboat gambler named Rake Brown (Barry Primus). The quartet becomes a sort of band of Robin Hoods, harassing the railroad and even robbing the industrial magnate Sartoris (John Carradine) himself at a formal dinner party. And Bertha has an undying love for Big Bill, (which is chronicled in numerous nude love scenes stipulated by Corman). But soon members of the band are caught and incarcerated, where they bear witness to further injustices and violent outrages. Hershey, the original flower-child movie star, has to carry Boxcar Bertha, and doesn't quite, as her character seems not so much young as merely childish. And Big Bill is an awful character, who at one point instigates a riot between cops and rail workers only to flee from the melee in order to seduce Bertha. In fact, the film is not worth seeing other than by students of Scorsese who are interested in this early stage of his evolution. MGM's DVD release of Boxcar Bertha (under their "Avant Garde" folio) offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), while audio is an adequate Dolby Digital 1.0 (French 1.0 and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included). Extras consist solely of the theatrical trailer, a scratchy print of an advertisement with too many spoilers. Keep-case.
—D. K. Holm

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