"They call it a depression...that's the word I got for this empty feeling inside."
" Loneliness has followed me my whole life. Everywhere. In bars, in cars, sidewalks, stores, everywhere. There's no escape."
There’s a fairly famous story about Martin Scorsese meeting John Cassavetes shortly after a screening of Boxcar Bertha. Cassavetes congratulated Scorsese on his endeavor and then told him, "Martin, you just spend a year of your life making shit!" and to not make anything else like it again, which prompted Scorsese to plunge into Mean Streets shortly after.
Overlooking Boxcar Bertha in the filmography of Martin Scorsese, as many people tend to do, is a bit like ignoring Elvis Presley’s original Sun recordings and just focusing on his later more polished and popular work for RCA. For Boxcar Bertha might just appear to be a cheap Roger Corman produced exploitation film from the seventies, a closer look reveals a rich and vastly important film in Scorsese’s canon, one that would introduce a mulitiple number of themes and issues that still affect his films to this day.
When he began preparing Boxcar Bertha in January 1971 Scorsese only had two features under his belt, the ultra low budget but masterful Who’s That Knocking On My Door, and the acclaimed documentary Street Scenes. Boxcar Bertha would mark his first studio directed feature as well as the first time he had worked with someone else’s material.
Roger Corman, of course, is one of the most important figures in film history and Scorsese belongs to a long list of important names who got their big break thanks to the great director turned producer. The rules were typically the same in this period, as Scorsese would remember, “Roger just told me, ‘Read the script, rewrite as much as you want, but remember, Marty, that you must have some nudity at least every fifteen pages. Not complete nudity, but maybe a little off the shoulder, or some leg just to keep the audience interest up.”
It was a system that worked over and over again for Corman and his young directors. Make it an exploitation movie filled with enough sex and violence to get the audience in the seats but feel free to bring your own personal touches and obsessions to the table as well. Perhaps more than any other film and director in the AIP canon, Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha did just that.
Boxcar Bertha is loosely based on a real life figure named Bertha Thompson, whose fictionalized book Sister of The Road (a work not even penned by her) detailed her struggles during the depression. The film itself belonged to a sub-genre that proliferated after the arrival of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and continued up until the mid to late seventies. Boxcar Bertha is one of the finest Bonnie and Clyde inspired films of the period and has aged a lot better than almost any of them.
Filmed in a marathon 24-day shoot on a budget of 600,000 dollars in Reader, Arkansas and starring future Academy Award nominee Barbara Hershey, Boxcar Bertha might look at first like no other Martin Scorsese film but from the opening moments on it is clearly the work of no one else.
A discussion of the film can’t go on without paying tribute to Barbara Hershey, who appears in nearly every shot of the film and gives a remarkably complex and confident performance as the films title character. Hershey was nearing her mid twenties when she shot Boxcar Bertha and she already had a fairly exciting career behind her including a lot of television work and a mesmerizing turn in Frank Perry’s unforgettable Last Summer in 1969. For Boxcar Bertha, California native Hershey would master an Ozark accent and slip into the role of the depression era criminal like she was born to play it. The performance is of monumental importance in Scorsese’s canon as it would mark the first time he would focus on a woman. Scorsese is often thought of as almost strictly a male director but his work here foreshadows some of the most interesting of his career, from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore to Age of Innocence and it is doubtful that Scorsese could have worked so successfully with actresses like Ellen Burstyn and Michelle Pfeiffer in those films had it not been for his time with Hershey on the set of Boxcar Bertha. It would be a fruitful collaboration and one that would change Scorsese’s life as it was Hershey who presented him with his first copy of Last Temptation of Christ on the set of the film. More than a decade later she would be working with him again, this time as Mary Magdalene on what would turn out to be his most controversial feature.
Opening up with a scene that Scorsese would return to three decades later on The Aviator, Boxcar Bertha can be viewed as almost a catalogue of iconic images from Scorsese’s future career. Like some sort of mystical magic ball that he is looking into predicting his own cinematic future, like an breathtaking early shot of Hershey walking towards the camera with her head down and hands in her jacket pocket. A small moment, but a haunting one when one compares it to one of Taxi Driver’s most famous shots just a few years down the road.
Bertha is a lost and lonely character and it is this isolation and distance that connects her so strongly with many of the more famous characters that have graced Scorsese’s films. She is also a guilty one and has any filmmaker ever been more focused on the idea of loneliness and guilt than Martin Scorsese?
I will use the IMDB plot synopsis to describe the story of Boxcar Bertha as I think it is a good and concise one: "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." The plot here is less important than what Scorsese brings to it, as this is finally less a film about Bertha Thompson and more a work about a director and a pivotal period in American film history.
“I’m a Union Man.” It’s a line that will be repeated and echo throughout all of Boxcar Bertha and one can see its connection clearly to Scorsese's career as he is someone who grew up loving the big budget studio films of his youth but finally realized his own place was as an independent within it and at times outside of it. David Carradine (seen here playing a gang leader named of all things, Bill) says the line describing himself several times through the first half of the film. With several union related scenes foreshadowing Gangs of New York, like an expertly staged early riot sequence, the line becomes key to understanding not only Carradine's character but also the disappointed and traumatic destiny that awaits Bill, Bertha and the entire gang...and also Scorsese himself.
It isn't just Scorsese's film backround that the film brings up but also his religious training as the film is filled with many biblical based references, not the least being the audacious final scene involving a crucifiction...so it is very much worth noting that it is indeed within a church where Bertha, Bill and the gang realize that the union and political ideas they had been holding onto were just as false and corrupt as the system they thought they were fighting. Like in an number of Scorsese’s later films, including Mean Streets, it is in a church where a decision is made that will alter the lives of the characters forever. In the case of Boxcar Bertha, it is a case of accepting their criminal lifestyle and relishing it.
Barbara Hershey isn’t the only one who gives a remarkable performance for Scorsese here. Carradine is very memorable, specifically in the final act of the film, and the talented Bernie Casey turns in one of his best performances as the harmonica playing Von Morton who is subjected to an extremely ugly racism in nearly ever scene he is in. Also look for the great Victor Argo, seen here in one of his first films.
If Boxcar Bertha is just a typical exploitation film in its first hour with hints of Scorsese’s future greatness, then I would argue that the last 30 minutes of the film contains some of the best stuff Scorsese has ever shot.
Beginning with a thrilling and poignant montage of sequences where we see Bertha giving over to a life of prostitution (Scorsese himself appears here as one of her johns) to an ending that clearly foreshadows The Last Temptation Of Christ that is as bleak as any that has ever appeared in a Scorsese or Corman production, the final couple of acts of Boxcar Bertha signal Scorsese for one of the first times as a major and innovative director with talent and style to burn. Add on the limitations he had shooting the film and the low budget, and these sequence prove all the more thrilling, heartbreaking and resonate.
If Who’s That Knocking On My Door and Mean Streets led to the classic Scorsese male driven films that he is most famous for, then I would argue that Boxcar Bertha led to the more female driven lesser regarded films in his canon like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, New York New York and The Age Of Innocence. Scorsese is a more complicated and diverse filmmaker than many people give him credit for and Boxcar Bertha is a clear signal of many of his most personal projects that were to come…all wrapped up in an 89 minute low budget exploitation film with some nudity and/or violence every few minutes just like Roger Corman asked for.
Boxcar Bertha didn’t make much of a splash when it was released in the particularly hot summer of 1972. Like most of Corman’s productions in this period, it made its money back and played in various parts of the country on drive in bills. Critically is was ignored for the most part and it has since slipped into unfortunate obscurity, often just regarded by fans and critics as the cheap quickie Scorsese made between Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets. It is a much deeper and winning film than that I assure you. It is currently available on DVD from MGM with a fairly sharp widescreen transfer (which highlights the great photography by underrated DP John M. Stephens), a trailer and nothing else. A special edition is in order and would go a long way to introducing the film to people who have never given it a shot.
John Cassavetes should be applauded for urging Scorsese to make a more personal project, as Mean Streets led to one of the most iconic and important directorial careers in film history. As much as I admire Cassavetes though, and he is one of my favorite filmmakers, I do take major exception to his quick and rather snobbish dismissal of Boxcar Bertha. Perhaps it has taken Scorsese’s work since to show just how powerful and important a film it is, I don’t know. I just know that it is one of my favorite Martin Scorsese pictures and I think a lot more ‘personal’ than most people have ever given it credit for.