"I'd just like to say...that this is a hold up."
Leave it to Scorsese to take what should, to all intents and purposes, been a cheap exploitation film and craft something as unique and deceptively deep as his second directorial feature ‘Boxcar Bertha’. Or at least that’s what it was trying to do, the only question is; did it succeed?
A loose adaptation of the story of Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey). Following the death of her father Bertha links up with a union organizer (David Carradine) and end up running afoul of the law. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression they make their way across the country under a life of crime, doing whatever they can to survive.
In 1972 Roger Corman was the most successful exploitation producer in America, around this time he hired Scorsese, several actors and an entire film crew, sent them out into the heartland of America and was expecting to get another cheap, violent and quick film in return. But Scorsese had other idea and that shines through immediately in his direction.
There’s a much heavier emphasis on mood and atmosphere rather than purely on the action. Furthermore the violence was far from the entertaining and senseless violence that fans of the exploitation genre would be used to, there is a certain weight to each drop of blood and immoral action, almost as if he wants to use it to reflect the inner nature of his characters…
It is fascinating to watch these early effort from Scorsese, pictures in which he still hadn’t quite found his footing and was still experimenting to try and discover just what kind of filmmaker he was going to be. His debut ‘Who’s that Knocking on My Door’ and ‘Boxcar Bertha’ are the only real chances we get to see that because very soon he would tap into that formula and create his first masterpiece. But for now we have this.
There is definitely a weird sense of fascination to ‘Boxcar Bertha’. It seems fairly obvious that the director wasn’t fully invested within the project, by this point in his career the whispers of Johnny Boy and Charlie Cappa must have been circling around his mind. The project is very much an extension of the brief crime-wave-lover craze that permeated the early 1970s as a reaction to ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. While there were some legitimately amazing character studies like Terrance Malick’s ‘Badlands’ for the most part they were intended as nothing more than sex driven, violent escapades to try and attract a young audience.
It’s fair to assume that Scorsese used this as a launching pad, having struggled to find another project to direct four years after the release of his first feature he needed something to draw support for his next passion project so he took up the role of helming a seedy crime movie. But credit where it’s due you can’t accuse him of not putting effort into it. There are a number of impressive shots and concepts within it. As well as that one has to admire the way in which he undertook this exploitation picture and bent it to his own style and vision.
If anything that’s where you can criticise the movie because the director is most defiantly making a different film to everyone else. If anything it creates a rather disjointed feel to the film and the moments of directorial flare feel almost out of place. ‘Boxcar Bertha’ is also very poorly structured, there’s no sense of pacing or development and ultimately it comes across as somewhat episodic. It wanders form one set piece to another with no sense pf purpose or reason. One can argue that it’s supposed to reflect the aimlessness of Bertha’s career as a criminal, but with so little development or complexity to the characters then it’s difficult to support that.
One can’t blame Scorsese for taking what should have been a cheap throwaway script and try to inject a sense of depth and style to it, but there’s ultimately so little to back the film up that I continually get the impression that everyone’s talent it being wasted. The performances are fine for what they have to be, but the question is could they be better with a superior script? Could this entire film be better with a different script?
Fairly senseless if not sometimes innovative.