Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972)
This is my contribution for the Roger Corman blogathon hosted by Nathanael Hood at the ForgottenClassics of Yesteryear blog from June 17 to 19.
When John Cassavetes saw this movie he said to Martin Scorsese: you spent what a year making that movie? You did a good job and you got it out of you but don’t ever make a film like this one because you’ll get stocked making exploitation films all your career.
With a step back we understand that Scorsese made many greater films after that and Boxcar Bertha isn’t a film that characterizes his work. However, the film has some undeniable qualities and it was a good school for Marty to learn some tricks for his follow film to follow: Mean Streets. Boxcar Bertha was produced by Roger Corman, a director/produer of hundreds of B movies and exploitation pictures. His main genre was Horror. He helped many soon-to-be-stars directors of the 1970’s like Francis Ford Coppola producing his Dementia 13. Corman was a master at making movies with small budgets and discovering fresh talents.
Largely inspired my Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde but also an interesting first step for the now widely known Martin Scorsese, Boxcar Bertha depicts the revenge of the union against the big corporate management of a railroad. The era, the 1930’s and the subject of two criminals running of the savers of the “little people” recalls who Penn’s film started a revolution in filmmaking and how the 1970’s were a time of greater more reflexive Cinema. The treatment of Boxcar Bertha looks like if Martin Scorsese wanted to make a Western à la John Ford, which is a great influence on Scorsese with especially The Searchers.
Anyhow, Boxcar Bertha never comes as close to other films of Scorsese in the 1970’s. There are many scenes that seemed forced and unScorsesian. Like he sex scenes were imposed by producer Roger Corman as selling arguments and to bring people into theatres. They even were shot a while after the entire film was made. Scorsese, a catholic, was unsure about the pertinence and the need of this kind of filmmaking. Well, hopefully enough he only made this film with producer Corman, because exploitation movies wouldn’t have helped Scorsese much longer after this episode in his career.
On the other side of exploitation was violence a form of expression Scorsese will use in many of his following films. For example, in Taxi Driver violence represents the purification of its central character, here in Boxcar Bertha it’s the punishment of the management of the railroad. The actual violence depicted isn’t glorified or idealized it’s disgusting and gross. It sends the message that says look what you made us do to you when you try to fuck with us! The crucifixion depicted in Boxcar Bertha is the element that is the most Scorsesian when you know that the little catholic wanted so much to one day direct a movie about the Christ.
In the whole, Boxcar Bertha is an average film that reflects its time made four years after the events of May 68 and the leftist movements that followed it. This story about a young couple revolting against the big system was in the air. Even if it's Marty's least known film every enthusiast of his films should see it just to understand where you have to begin to get to make Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull: you have to pay your dues.