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Boxcar Bertha

USA 1972
produced by
Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff (executive), James H. Nicholson (executive) for AIP
directed by Martin Scorsese
starring Barbara Hershey, David Carradine, Bernie Casey, Barry Primus, John Carradine, Victor Argo, David Osterhout, Grahame Pratt, Chicken Holleman, Harry Northup, Ann Morrell, Marrianne Dole, Joe Reynolds, Michael Fitzgerald, Gayne Rescher, Martin Scorsese
screenplay by Joyce Hooper Corrington, John William Corrington, based on the book Sisters of the Road by Ben L. Reitman, music by Gib Guilbeau, Thad Maxwell

review by
Mike Haberfelner

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The South of the USA in the Great Depression era: after Bertha's (Barbara Hershey) father, a pilot, is driven into a fatal accident by his boss, Bertha goes travelling through the country, primarily on boxcars, because she has nothing else to do and because travelling on boxcars is the cheapest.

Eventually, she makes the acquaintance of 'Big' Bill Shelley (David Carradine), a unionist who seems to stand against everything that has killed her father, and she is immediately infatuated by the man. Soon enough the two become lovers and he even takes her virginity ... but then they split.

Bertha makes the acquaintance of Rake (Barry Primus), a rather clumsy gambler. Bertha on the other hand seems to have a natural talent for gambling, so the two become a team - but Rake's clumsiness soon enough gets them into trouble, and eventually they find themselves on the run because a) she has shot a man, and b) because she has learned about a plot to assassinate Bill - who is now referred to only as a Red officially - and sees it her duty to go to hell and back to warn him.

Eventually, Bertha and Rake manage to catch up with Bill, but it's not long before Bill gets arrested - and Rake with him.

Later: Bertha has found out where Bill is held, and she uses her female charms to break him, Rake and Von (Bernie Casey), a large black guy, free. Thing is, now they're on the lam, and to even survive, they have to commit hold-up after hold-up, and while the others, especially Bertha, find this rather exciting, Bill still thinks of himself as nothing but a unionist and even tries to donate his share of the loot to the union - which wouldn't even touch it with a stick. In the media, they soon have become public enemies, they are not only criminals, what's worse they are also Reds, and what's still worse, since they have a black man who shares equal rights among their ranks they are also niggerlovers (definitely not my kind of terminology I assure you but a direct quote from the film, used there only as a reflection of racism in 1930's America).

Bill wants their fight to get political, so before long they resort to only hit targets directly linked to the railroad corporation run by Sartoris (John Carradine, David's father in real life) - which goes amazingly well for a while until they walk right into a trap set up by Sartoris and his henchmen, and all get captured safe from Bertha, who uses her knowledge about (travelling by) boxcars to make a getaway.

Trying to hide from the law and trying to make a living, Bertha soon enough becomes a prostitute ...

Then though Betha meets Von once more and leans that Bill has escaped from prison - but  when she finally arrives at his hideout, Sartoris' henchmen have already tracked him down, brutally beat him up and then nail him to the next boxcar like a latter day Jesus. Von arrives just too late to prevent that, but he guns down all of Sartoris' henchmen, a bit like a deus ex machina.

The last scene shows the train taking off with Bill still nailed to the boxcar (and possibly dead by now), with Bertha desperately trying to catch up - with the train and with him.

 

Let me state the obvious first: Boxcar Bertha was clearly inspired by Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde from 1967, the parallels between the two films are too apparent and AIP wouldn't have funded this film by then newcomer Martin Scorsese otherwise. That said though, the similarities between the two films are actually rather fleeting, sure they are both about lovers who have turned to a life of crime, but Scorsese's film focusses less on obviuos action scenes, the glamour and glossy period imagery 1930's style but more on the film's characters, its political background and the grittier sides of the Great Depression, qutie besides giving the film a different spin by telling it from a woman's point of view (and Barbara Hershey does a great job in carrying the film) - and the more mainstream action finale where Von exacts justice by gunning down all the bad guys actually feels a bit out of place in the film.

True, it might not be Martin Scorsese's best film, but hey, Martin Scorsese has made so many great films ... and this one's still pretty good ...

 

review © by Mike Haberfelner

 

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