Release Date(s)1972 (October 17, 2016)
Studio(s)American International Pictures (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: C-
In her indispensable liner notes for this Twilight Time Blu-ray release, film historian Julie Kirgo deems Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972) the best movie to come out of the “Roger Corman Film School” – high praise considering that other Corman “graduates” include Jonathan Demme, Francis Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, and Monte Hellman. Like those directors, Scorsese took advantage of Corman’s willingness to employ (exploit?) talented young filmmakers and give them relatively free reign provided they delivered certain marketable elements. In the case of Bertha, Scorsese just had to provide the requisite sex and violence necessary for an R-rated, drive-in bound riff on Bonnie and Clyde – needless to say, this wasn’t exactly an oppressive demand for the future auteur of Raging Bull and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Indeed, no director ever assimilated his Corman-assigned material as thoroughly and successfully as Scorsese; contrary to John Cassavetes’ dismissal at the time as “a piece of shit” (he thought, not without some justification, that Scorsese was wasting his time in exploitation and should be making higher end movies), it’s a deeply personal, expertly mounted piece of work, and one that offers tantalizing glimpses of Scorsese’s later obsessions and preoccupations. The movie tells the story of a group of outsiders who, during the Depression, find themselves criminals through bad luck and a series of accidents; they’re led by Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine), a one-time labor leader, but Scorsese favors Bill’s lover Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) when it comes to giving the audience an identification figure. Like Ellen Burstyn’s title character in Scorsese’s later masterpiece Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Bertha is a smart, capable woman plagued by bad circumstances; over the course of Boxcar Bertha, we follow her through a series of adventures in which she does whatever she has to to survive.
The result is a journey of surprising variety and emotional depth, as Scorsese uses the “lovers on the run” format familiar from Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands to generate a series of episodes that are wide-ranging in their effects and intentions. Although shot on a low budget and tight schedule, this is an American epic: tragic, funny, sexy, violent, poignant, and class-conscious. The amount of period detail Scorsese and his collaborators evoke is astonishing, as is the dynamism of his camera – the movie is jammed to the hilt with distinctive compositions, cuts, and camera moves, all of which perfectly serve the narrative. There’s no showing off just for the sake of showing off, yet this is a bravura achievement – a movie by a young director with something to prove, who proves it all in 91 minutes. It’s also a foreshadowing of what was to come: the Catholic iconography and philosophies that would obsess Scorsese in many later films are on full display here, most powerfully in a crucifixion scene that has a lot in common with Last Temptation of Christ. (According to Kirgo, Scorsese first became aware of that book when Hershey gave it to him on the set of Bertha.)
Yet this is not merely a compendium of motifs; it stands alone as a terrific movie regardless of its connection to other Scorsese works, and would be worth watching even if Scorsese had never made another movie. The Blu-ray transfer is up to Twilight Time’s usual high standards, capturing the dusty grit of the movie’s Depression-era imagery without deteriorating into a brown blur as in some previous home video incarnations of the film. The movie never had the kind of layered sound design Scorsese would employ on later films, but its serviceable mono soundtrack certainly sounds as good here as it ever has – the dialogue in particular has a clarity here that I’ve never come across in my dozen or so previous viewings of the picture. There are no extra features aside from a theatrical trailer and an isolated score track, but I’d still highly recommend this disc for the film itself – pretty much anything directed by Scorsese belongs on Blu-ray on any serious film collector’s shelf, and this movie is no exception to that rule.
- Jim Hemphill