Boxcar Bertha (1972)

boxcarbertha_1972_poster
Boxcar Bertha (1972)
  • Time: 88 min
  • Genre: Crime | Drama | Romance
  • Director: Martin Scorsese
  • Cast: Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Barry Primus, John Carradine

Storyline:

Based on “Sister of the Road,” the fictionalized autobiography of radical and transient Bertha Thompson as written by physician Dr. Ben L. Reitman, ‘Boxcar’ Bertha Thompson, a woman labor organizer in Arkansas during the violence-filled Depression of the early ’30’s meets up with rabble-rousing union man ‘Big’ Bill Shelly and they team up to fight the corrupt railroad establishment and she is eventually sucked into a life of crime with him.

One review

  • Before Martin Scorsese trolled the dark alleys, bars, cabs, and pool halls of the seedy New York City Districts, he made a project that was a little less personal when he shot Boxcar Bertha in 1972. That’s not to say that it’s a bad film. In fact, it’s darn good. It just feels like it wasn’t exactly his dream picture. You can see little tidbits of his signature style laden throughout even though it sometimes feels like an all out action flick. There’s a lingering notion that he just had to make this thing in general in order to get more opportunities to flex his directorial wings. It’s also a small film developed by a B movie producer. However, it’s alive, ambitious, violent, cynical, and edgy. Taking a sort of Bonnie and Clyde approach, “Bertha” is no doubt a good old fashioned American movie. From the opening title sequence, you can immediately sense a rush of urgency and an aching need for a budding, genius filmmaker to get out.

    Taking place in the 1930’s and based on an autobiography entitled Sister of the Road, Boxcar Bertha is an account of Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) and her lover Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine). They meet, become active train robbers (with the help of some other buddies), and reluctantly get involved in a murder of an important, wealthy gambler. The film chronicles their intersecting lives as fugitives for a quick, fast paced 90 minutes. On a side note, “Bertha” is also an exercise that finds ways to make radical statements about race and gender issues. What’s the point you ask? Well, from what I read about this vehicle’s background, the railroad south relayed this culture throughout the aforementioned decade.

    As far as casting goes, Boxcar Bertha is significant in my mind because it’s one those movies where you’d think that everyone in it would later go on to become A-list actors/actresses. One in particular, is Barbara Hershey. She gives a risky, fearless performance that should have catapulted her into superstardom. Yes she’s been a working actress for the last 40 years but has never quite equaled her potential here. Watching “Bertha” you sense that she was wise beyond her years (she was only in her early 20’s when filming began) not to mention adorable in every singular frame. Along with her, you have solid portrayals of vagabond robbers in David Carradine, Barry Primus (Rake Brown), and Bernie Casey (Von Morton). Again, these are respected actors that have hung around for a long time, just not entirely broken through.

    Something of note: No one is a bigger fan of Martin Scorsese than me. But I’ll never figure out why there is never any controversy over his excessive use of racial slurs and overall lapses of racial bigotry in his films (Boxcar Bertha has a handful of it). When other directors make an attempt at it (Quentin Tarantino comes to mind), they get a lot of criticism from other film critics and even their peers. Scorsese somehow gets a pass. Now this is not a knock on the famed director. It’s just one of the great mysteries of his work that I’ll never quite understand. Another note: Two actors that share a solid amount of screen time in “Bertha” (Harry Northup and the previously mentioned Carradine) are featured later on in Scorsese’s classic, Mean Streets. What’s strange is that they make unbelievably small appearances in that film. It’s as if they got demoted (ha ha). No really, I’m not kidding. They literally have no lines whatsoever.

    Overall, Scorsese’s second feature film has style and it’s far from boring. This flick enthralls you from the get-go. I’d call it the movie equivalent of a sleeve of firecrackers. So to be honest, I’m not sure if a lot of you have taken in “Bertha” (I could be wrong). If you’ve viewed it, disregard the last comment. If you haven’t, then give it a look-see. Oh and if you’re wondering whether or not the world’s greatest living director shows off with the camera (aggressively I might add), don’t worry, you’ll get that here. Boxcar Bertha is experimental, exhausting, and full of jump start energy (be aware of the ending though, it’s not for the faint-hearted). The tagline for its poster reads, “Life made her an outcast, love made her an outlaw.” What can I say; I guess this movie “made” me a fan.

    Rating: 3 out of 4 stars

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