Boxcar Bertha (1972) ** ½
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Joyce Hooper Corrington & John William Corrington based on the book by Ben L. Reitman.
Starring: Barbara Hershey ('Boxcar' Bertha Thompson), David Carradine ('Big' Bill Shelly), Barry Primus (Rake Brown), Bernie Casey (Von Morton), John Carradine (H. Buckram Sartoris), Victor Argo (McIver #1), David Osterhout (McIver #2), Grahame Pratt (Emeric Pressburger), 'Chicken' Holleman (M. Powell), Harry Northup (Deputy Sheriff Harvey Hall), Ann Morell (Tillie Parr), Marianne Dole (Mrs. Mailler), Joe Reynolds (Joe Cox), Martin Scorsese (Brothel Client).
Boxcar Bertha is probably the least interesting feature that Martin Scorsese ever directed. There is a reason for that – all the other films he made, he had more of a choice in the material. He either wrote the screenplay, co-wrote it, or had it shaped to meet his vision. Boxcar Bertha was a film that was handed to him by Roger Corman, and Scorsese simply made it. You cannot blame him for doing so. It had been 5 years since he completed Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, and aside from his little seen documentary Street Scenes (which is, regrettably, one of the films I cannot find for this series), Scorsese had not directed another film. When Roger Corman came calling, Scorsese jumped at the opportunity to direct again, even if it was a story that didn’t really suit him.
But to call Scorsese simply a director for hire for Boxcar Bertha would be, I think, rather unfair. The film has all the trappings of a typical Corman exploitation film – lots of sex, nudity and violence – but it has a tone that is different from most of them. Many exploitation films of the 1970s are fun, as long as you do not allow yourself to actually think of the misogyny on display in most of them. Scorsese’s film is a little bit different in that there is a sense of sadness that hangs over the entire proceedings. This isn’t a very fun film to watch, although it probably sounds like one.
The story takes place during the depression, and follows Box Car Thompson (Barbara Hershey), who watches her father die in plane crash, and then hits the road, eventually falling in love with Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine), a Union Man, who makes a nuisance of himself everywhere he goes. The film follows them, and their gang which includes cowardly card shark Rake Brown (Barry Primus), and a colorful African American Von Morton (Bernie Casey). The men go in and out of jail, and Bertha breaks them out, then doesn’t, and finally finds herself working at a brothel. The scene that the film is probably most remembered for is one of the final ones, where the big, bad guys finally catch up to Shelly, and Crucify him on a train (it’s interesting to watch this crucifixion and compare it to the crucifixation in Scorsese’ The Last Temptation of Christ, as they are very similar).
I think the problem with the film is the same problem Scorsese has often had in some of his less successful films – that is, he tries to marry a genre film to a film that expresses his own personal obsessions, and ends up with a film that is half baked on both accounts. If my memory serves me correctly (and we’ll find out in the coming months), this was a problem not only in this film but with New York, New York and Cape Fear. Scorsese is too much of a film artist to get out of the film’s way, and just let it be what it was meant to be. Played for fun, Boxcar Bertha could have been a nice little exploitation film. But that’s not how’s it's played. The performances by Barbara Hershey and David Carradine are quite good in the film, but they seem to have followed Scosese’s lead, and are taking the material a little too seriously. While the sex in the film – and there is quite a lot of it – is much more guilt free than we see in most Scorsese movies, dare I say even more pleasurable than in his other films – it still isn’t just the fun scenes Corman probably imagined. I think it’s telling that Scorsese cast himself as a brothel client who asks Bertha if he pays extra, can he stay the night, because he doesn’t want to sleep alone. Sex, as always, isn’t just sex to Scorsese.
So, Boxcar Bertha as a film unto itself is not completely successful. What it is though, is well made, and entertaining in fits and starts. The film is never boring that’s for sure. But for Scorsese, it represents probably the worst film he made in his career. It gave him some valuable experience, and probably taught him a lesson – he isn’t good as a director for hire. He needs to be able to shape his material to suit himself. The only other times in his career where he’d work as a director for hire are probably After Hours, The Color of Money and Cape Fear. With the exception of After Hours, which he somehow turned into a masterpiece, these are among the more disappointing films of Scorsese’s career. But if Boxcar Bertha represents the worst film I have to sit through while doing this series, I’ll be happy. It is, after all, not a bad little film. It’s just not a film that anyone who isn’t a Scorsese die hard has any real reason to see.