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BOXCAR BERTHA (director: Martin Scorsese; screenwriters: from the memoir Sister Of The Road by Boxcar Bertha Thompson as told to Ben L. Reitman/John William & Joyce Hooper Corrington; cinematographer: John Stephens; editors: Buzz Feitshans/Barbara Pokras; music: Thad Maxwell/Gib Guilbeau; cast: Barbara Hershey (Bertha), David Carradine (Bill Shelly), Barry Primus (Rake Brown), Bernie Casey (Von Morton), John Carradine (H. Buckram Sartoris), Victor Argo (McIver Brother), David R. Osterhout (McIver Brother), Grahame Pratt (Emeric Pressburger), “Chicken” Hollemanl (Michael Powel), Harry Northrup (Deputy Sheriff, Harvey Hall); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Roger and Julie Corman; MGM/AIP; 1972)
“Slightly better than its formulaic offering.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Boxcar Bertha, Martin Scorsese’s first studio film for Hollywood, shot on the limited budget of $600,000, is slightly better than its formulaic offering. It comes off as a fair imitation of the recent box office smash Bonnie and Clyde. This impersonal Scorsese project, based on the memoirs of the real Boxcar Bertha Thompson, shuns anything heavy or smacking of politics, and instead concentrates on the farcical nature of the work. There are set comedy and almost hard-core sex pieces, that seemed more commercially intended than artistic. This is not one of Scorsese’s stronger films. But it gets by on the charms of its stars, Barbara Hershey and David Carradine, and it’s filled with the latest cinematic tricks such as quick fades and dreamy soft-focuses. There are also some breezy characters who are easy to handle and add a certain corny charm. It gets away with its mix of hayseed comedy antics and some bloodshed, as it all appears as harmless fun until the murders start coming– culminating in, of all things, a crucifixion.

The film is set during the Depression, in the early 1930s. Small-town Arkansas farm girl Bertha (Hershey) rides the railroad boxcars and hooks up with trade union activist Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine), after the accidental death of her father while piloting his crop duster. On the road, the free-spirited young lady with the great bod falls in love with the protective Big Bill, but separates from him temporarily after the powerful railroads bust up a union demonstration. She runs into a Yankee small-time conman and card hustler named Rake Brown (Primus) in a hobo camp, who is comically inept and is beaten by her in craps. This duo gets into a card game with a bigoted southern lawyer and when he accuses Rake of cheating and is about to do him in, she grabs the cowardly Rake’s gun and plugs the lawyer. When Big Bill is busted by the railroad detectives and jailed in the local southern jail, he reunites in his cell with his harmonica playing black friend Von (Casey) who has also been arrested. When Bertha engineers a jail break from the chain gang of Big Bill, Von, and Rake by enticing the guard, Deputy Sheriff Harvey, the escapees form a loose criminal gang. After robbing the railroad, Big Bill who considers himself a union man and not a thief, gives his share of the loot to the union cause. The gang after slipping into crime in various small Dixie towns, can’t stop–which becomes their downfall.

Film buffs might want to keep an eye out for two bit players who play British directors Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, as their characterization is used by Scorsese as an homage. David Carradine’s father, famous character actor John Carradine, has a bit part as the owner of the railroad.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”