Boxcar Bertha

Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972)

This is my contribution for the Roger Corman blogathon hosted by Nathanael Hood at the Forgotten Classics 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/producer 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.


  1. Fascinating review. This was an important film in the career of Martin Scorsese, as you rightly pointed out. But, as you again mentioned, it was the techniques and skills that he learned while making it that were the most important. And now we come to Roger Corman. I was partly surprised by how Corman told Scorsese to add the sex scenes. But it makes sense. I have literally seen all of Scorsese's films. I don't think that ANY of them actually show the sexual act EXCEPT for "Boxcar Bertha." Sure...he's liberal with nudity and shows couples before and after the deed...but never during!

    Corman was largely the same way...for most of his career at least....remember, he got his start in the 50s when American cinema tried to pretend that sex didn't actually exist. But in the late 60s, early 70s, sex and nudity started to creep into Corman's films in a big way. And it always made me feel uncomfortable coming from Corman. He was about the innuendo...the eye candy...the provocative....but showing sex...and in some cases, rape....was a little too much from him. Then again, he was making exploitation movies in the 60s and 70s...so can we really blame him?

    I want to personally thank you for participating in this blogathon. Your enthusiasm and insight have been invaluable additions to our blogathon's spirit. I hope that you will be a regular contributor to our future blogathons!

    Also, don’t forget to vote for the Readers’ Choice Award on Monday! Also, check out the top right of my blog to vote for the topic of our next Forgotten Classics blogathon!

  2. Michael,
    Your review gives me a lot of insight into Corman and his interpretation of society norms, the issues facing everyone during the 60's and the 70's.

    I appreciate your honest point of view while giving us a peek into the Scorsese and Corman mindset.
    Well done!

  3. I'm a big fan of this movie even though I agree with you that it's a little out-of-sync with Scorsese's overall oeuvre...but I think Marty's raw talent is definitely noticeable in this early effort, and I think much of the evocation of the 30s period is really nicely done. Enjoyed your review very much!

  4. Michael, I wasn't really aware that Corman had influenced future great directors like Scorsese. Your assessment of the exploitation issues and Scorsese's views of film-making show some real thought about the impact they had. I've never seen this movie, and honestly probably wouldn't go out of my way to find it, but your description of its societal point of view and its place in Scorsese's body of work is very interesting. Glad you joined in the blogathon!

  5. I've always wanted to see this one. I remember it still being talked about when I was a kid in the late 1970s, probably because of Scorsese's fame at the time. Interesting that Corman insisted on adding sex scenes later. While he didn't direct many movies with overt sex in them, he certainly produced a bunch; Big Bad Mama just 2 years after Bertha is very explicit. Corman certainly knew that sex sells.

  6. What a refrsehing review of this film! Although there are little tidbits here and there of Scorsese as we know him now, it truly is an exploitation film. I think Barbara Hershey is the best thing about BOXCAR BERTHA. She would become a better actress, but she's still pretty impressive.

  7. This one and "New York, New York" are the only two Scorsese movies I haven't seen, so I should probably just go ahead and get it done.

    Interesting that Marty was trying to film it like a western. When I finally see it, I'll look for that.

  8. Thank you Nathanael! In fact I've seen few Corman films and this is probably why I couldn't compare BB to anything he done in those years. It's been my pleasure! I will for sure be a part of your next blog-a-thon.

    @Page Thanks, and I'm glad to see you aboard on Le Mot du Cinephiliaque! We need more girls here!

    @Ivan, thanx for the kudos!

    @ClassicBecky, thank you for reading, and I often place movies in their societal context because I studied History and my writing is very influenced by this discipline. It's my Historian point of view on Cinema and films...

    @Stacia, Corman knew that and this is in fact still true!

    @Rick29 It's true that Hershey gives a noticeable performance in BB, but I'm not really an actor/actress kind of cinephile that's why I don't often analyzes this aspect of a film...

    @Thomas Duke I think he got this Western approach to the whole movie, but it's not that obvious... I would watch NY, NY before just because it's a hommage to the great films of Powell/Pressburger (see The Red Shoes) even if many cinephiles hate New York, New York...

    Thanks for all the comments they are very appreciated and you all make me feel warm inside!

  9. You are correct, this is not typical Scorsese, but it is still a Scorsese I greatly enjoy. It is sort of like Scorsese's exploitative side peeking through - and we all know he most certainly had that in him with his succulent, almost giddy way of showing violence in his films.

    Great review and great insights. Keep up the good work buddy.

  10. Thank You Kevyn! I'm going to read your review of Tower of London at this moment!


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