Train In Vain
Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Second up is 1972’s Boxcar Bertha, reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Barbara Hersey, David Carradine, Bernie Casey, Barrie Primus
Almost five years after Who’s That Knocking at My Door, Martin Scorsese finally turned out another feature, only on this occasion it was a period piece that had no connection with the Italian New York he was so comfortable with. Coupling this with being a work for hire director for AIP under Roger Corman and one would have to say this was a retrograde step for him, as it certainly seemed less familiar stylistically than his first outing.
Scorsese’s second full length movie is a benchmark example of an aspiring auteur tilting against the commercial needs of a (albeit celebrated) pulp producer of low budget features. After the success of 1970’s Bloody Mama, Corman was looking for another crime property with a female lead. Scorsese, brought in on the back of his first film’s moderate success, was given three weeks to complete the picture.
The film’s story, based loosely on real events, is about Bertha (Barbara Hershey) and her lover Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine)’s journey across the American South in the 1930s. Shelly is meant, according to the script, to be a “bolshevik” firebrand battling the railroad bosses and the FBI, while Bertha, despite his misgivings, becomes his partner and enabler. Together with gambler Rake Brown (Barry Primus) and Von Morton (Bernie Casey) they amble from one town to another, holding up various banks and boxcars until everything quickly unravels.
It’s a strange affair, to say the least, with the somewhat drab longueurs punctuated by rather cack-handed violence. You get little sense of what drives the characters, even if there is a context of sorts – Carradine’s lead has principles, but they are only occasionally brought up, while the four fugitives continue their crime wave purely out of nihilism, as there doesn’t seem to be any other reason for their actions. The film, despite Scorsese at the helm, is very cartoony in places, with some decidedly poor acting from some of the supporting players. And the lack of money available certainly impacts the action scenes, which look comedic as a result – Scorsese had yet to learn how to direct violence with any real gusto, although there is the odd good moment.
Even more problematic is the script – laden as it is with racial epithets and slurs brought in to confer authenticity, it is also ham-fisted and banal, and rarely evokes real drama or tension. But then this is an AIP production, and despite Scorsese bringing in some excellent cinematography, Boxcar is still an exploitation flick that may attempt to ape the cadences of Bonnie and Clyde, but is simply not in the same league as that pivotal movie. Carradine does a decent job as the troubled Shelly, and Hershey (in one of her first starring roles) lights up the screen with her presence but can do little beyond that. The last ten minutes, when Bertha briefly works in a whorehouse before discovering a dissolute Shelly in the backwoods, is genuinely off-kilter – one assumes that it was meant to be cathartic, but it ends up being bathetic, and yet again, lacking in credibility (or sense). At times it feels like a proper verite movie, while at others it resembles a Terence Hill and Bud Spencer spaghetti western, albeit a downbeat one.
One could argue that this was an embryonic effort from Scorsese, considering that it was only his second proper feature. However it was basically a stutter step – a learning experience that taught him to focus entirely on personal projects, and not allow producers to dictate anything. His next movie, Mean Streets, saw him return to the characters and setting of Who’s That Knocking at My Door, a move of course that would lead to him finding his identity as a filmmaker and American icon.
Here’s the film’s trailer