Time: 88 Minutes
Barbara Hershey as Boxcar Bertha
David Carradine as Big Bill Shelly
Barry Primus as Rake Brown
Bernie Casey as Von Morton
John Carradine as H. Buckram Sartoris
Director: Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese’s second feature loosely adapts the autobiography of Bertha Thompson, portraying the adventures of the Depression-era criminal following the death of her father. Bertha (Barbara Hershey) joins union organizer “Big” Bill Shelly (David Carradine) in fighting anti-union forces after an unexpected murder drives them to a life of robbing trains. The atmospheric tale depicts their life on the lam, doing whatever is necessary to survive.
After Who’s that Knocking at My Door, Martin Scorsese’s next film would be an exploitation movie of all things, and produced by Roger Corman. While he’s definitely advanced as a director and there are some good parts to it, Boxcar Bertha is ultimately just another exploitation movie that’s not the best showcase for his talents.
I will preface this by saying that my review is looking at it many years after I saw this movie, so I’m going back and reminding myself of what the movie is. My memory of the movie isn’t all that great. The ‘plot’ is really nothing special and it’s rather uninteresting really. More than likely a big part of it is due to the fact that this was an exploitation movie, and it needed to rely on sex and violence, and those only served to distract and heavily affect the pacing. For my problems with the movie, I do feel like removing a lot of those elements would’ve improved the movie quite a lot. With that said, I can’t say for certain that Scorsese not making this an exploitation movie would’ve made this actually good. The highlight of the entire movie was the last 10 minutes, Scorsese took the plot to a dark and violent place, and not the over the top exploitation route either. So I guess if you stuck around for the whole movie, you are rewarded by a good point to end it off on.
A lot of the cast is quite talented and it still comes across in the movie, but there’s only so much that they can do with the material that they are given. The characters aren’t exactly delved into a lot. Barbara Hershey is the highlight performance as Bertha, and she worked well with David Carradine as the lead couple of the movie. Some of the other supporting actors like Barry Primus and Bernie Casey also work. Nothing to really say about the rest of the cast.
Martin Scorsese’s direction sure has improved since his last movie, but it doesn’t really feel like one of his movies at the same time. It feels like a Roger Corman movie delivered with the talent of a director of Martin Scorsese’s calibre at that time. You can really see from Boxcar Bertha that he had more skill than this movie deserved. A lot of the violence and sex are straight out of a B movie. As I said earlier though, the latter portion does feel like it was directed by Scorsese and that was quite good.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a bad movie, but Boxcar Bertha is really nothing special. I like some of the acting, and Scorsese’s direction really shines through from time to time, but otherwise it’s just another exploitation movie. It’s one of my least favourites of his movies, if not my least favourite. The best thing to come out of this was the fact that after director John Cassavetes saw a screening of this movie, he told Scorsese to direct something much better, and indeed a year later he would come out with Mean Streets, which was basically his breakout movie. I’d basically say if you’re a Scorsese completionist or if you’re into exploitation movies then check it out. Otherwise this isn’t essential viewing by any means.