#25 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Martin Scorsese released his first film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, spent some time editing the documentary Woodstock, and then Roger Corman scooped him up to make a quick and dirty adaptation of a fake woman’s life story. John Cassavetes watched the film right after Scorsese made it, embraced him, and told him to never make an exploitation film again. Cassavetes was right. Scorsese probably did the best he could with the limited material, but the need for exploitative elements undermine anything close to a core story that exists here in more ways that one.
Bertha was the daughter of a crop duster pilot who watched her father die at the orders of his employer who demanded that his whole field be dusted before he got paid. She attaches herself to a couple of men, Big Bill Shelly, a communist union agitator, and Rake Brown, a low level conman. Romantically involved first with one and then the other, they work alongside Von Morton, a black man in Depression-era Arkansas, running a crime spree targeting the railroad company.
There are some interesting ideas at play underneath the surface of Boxcar Bertha, but they only very rarely come anywhere close to the surface. The most interesting undercurrent is around Shelly. He’s a true believer in the union cause, but through happenstance he ends up on a crime spree. He’s confronted with the path he’s on at one point and he rejects it, choosing to try and go back to the union. However, his infamy has traveled and the union doesn’t want him back. Sometime later, he and his small gang have broken into the house of H. Buckram Sartoris, the head of the railroad. Sartoris quotes the Bible at him, but Shelly waves his gun around talking about how violence is the only word he needs. There’s an interesting exploration of a communist believer resorting to brute violence as, he sees it, a valid extension of his belief system. But this gets lost in the sex and violence of the genre requirements set out by Roger Corman.
Scorsese liked to say that Corman demanded nudity ever fifteen pages of the script. Corman laughs that off saying that, yes, he demanded nudity, but not that much. The problem with the nudity is that it’s completely extraneous and gratuitous. It serves nothing but titillation. The same can be said for much of the violence which wallows in the details providing very little in terms of story at the same time. The jail break, for instance, includes a lot of blood and violence, splattered on every wall, that the actual movement of our four characters breaking out ends up as little more than an afterthought. There’s definitely no consideration of any ideas or character there. It’s just bloody violence. I have nothing against bloody violence in film, even for its own sake, but it needs to be good. Most of the violence here is pretty mundane, and it ends up clashing with the more interesting character stuff that gets pushed aside. Essentially, this movie is at war with itself. Scorsese tried to use his limited time to make something interesting from a character perspective, but the constraints from Corman kept those elements to a minimum and the inexperienced young director didn’t know how to navigate the two demands. He would later go on to more deftly combine violence and narrative, but he didn’t quite know how just yet.
Another problem is with Bertha herself. I don’t find her as a character particularly interesting. She’s perpetually chipper, sort of involved with two men, and seems to have no real drive. She just goes along with the action, happy to wave a pistol around or gamble or whatever else comes her way. I think that she ends up being a large source of my boredom in the film. As the movie wades through events from one scene of violence to another, we’re mostly along with Bertha who seems to have nothing to say or do of any real interest. It’s an interesting comparison to Holly in Badlands who is filled with little but the most innocuous thoughts, but her innocuousness and tangential relation to the world around her is the point, the violence of her and Kit’s adventure across South Dakota being a manifestation of youthful disconnect from meaning. In Boxcar Bertha, it’s just violence, so her detachment feels empty of any meaning.
I will give the movie props for its final action beats, though. The gang gets cornered and the action is kind of great. Scorsese threw his weight around with that bit, having the camera follow shells and thrown bodies in a technical display of great energy. However, the movie’s problems with its thinness play out again when the McIver brothers literally crucify Shelly to the side of a train car. The implied comparison to Christ is completely unsupported by the text of the film and pretty distasteful considering the man’s embrace of violence as a means to an end.
The movie has a certain technical polish from time to time, but ultimately it’s a mess of a film as a director with a more European art cinema sensibility tries to function under the constraints of American exploitation rules.