Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Boxcar Bertha, scripted by Joyce and William Corrington (who wrote Corman's Von Richthofen and Brown), is loosely based on Sister of the Road, a memoir by Bertha Thompson, who spent the 30s as a hobo, outlaw, union hanger-on and prostitute. To direct, Corman hired young Martin Scorsese, who had already made a semi-autobiographical art picture with Harvey Keitel (Who's That Knocking at My Door) but shown commercial savvy by agreeing to shoot extra nude scenes so the film could actually get a release. The result is the most explicitly political of the rural gangster movie cycle, casting hippie haired, impossibly lovely Barbara Hershey as Bertha and her then-partner David Carradine as labour organiser Big Bill Shelly. If the unusually detailed pointing of the finger of guilt at corrupt, racist, murderous authority figures is more characteristic of producer Corman than the director, Scorsese's influence doubtless extended to naming a couple of minor villains Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. In a prefiguring of The Last Temptation of Christ (a book Hershey, later Scorsese's Mary Magdalene, gave him on set), it winds up with Carradine captured by a posse of railroad policemen and crucified on the side of a boxcar.

Hitting all the exploitation notes (jokey but violent hold ups, free love between the leads, counterculture references), this is lively and fun, as interesting in its own right as it is as an early Marty. Far from Scorsese's usual New York territory (though he has a tiny cameo as a lonely brothel john who pays Bertha extra just to sleep the night), it does have a con man character (Barry Primus) who can get by in a craps game until Bertha nudges him into speaking, whereupon fellow hobos recognise him as 'a yankee' and refuse to have anything to do with him. Carradine gives one of his best performances as Shelly, who gets dragged along on hold-ups and railroad robberies but insists that he's a socialist not a crook and tries to turn over his loot to a union official who rebukes him with 'whores and niggers, that's a fine image for unionism'. A factor in cracking the star's usual monolothic monotony might well be the requirement that he play several scenes opposite his father John, who is cast as the windy but crafty railroad president Shelly and Bertha set out to infuriate: note the fine interplay between the Carradines in a hold-up, as a shotgun-toting David orders John to turn over his valuables and stand against the wall and John casually finishes his glass of champagne before complying then drives the outlaw into a rage with a nice line in hypocritical smarm.
KIM NEWMAN

First Published In: Crime Time


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