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Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese) 1972


    Really, the only reason that anyone is going to watch Boxcar Bertha is because it’s Martin Scorsese’s first studio feature. Certainly, Barbara Hershey’s performance as the title character is passable, but it’s hardly the best work that the often-brilliant actress has given. The movie is a fairly obvious knockoff of Arthur Penn’s magnificent Bonnie and Clyde, and even after acknowledging its many debts to that landmark film (the hyper violent shootouts, the sexual frankness, and the kinetic editing), it doesn’t hold up too well. Consider that around the same time, Scorsese’s contemporaries were all making better road movies. When compared to Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, and Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express, there’s no way that it can be thought of as better than any of them. Of course, many of this movie’s problems lie in the cookie-cutter script, which squanders most of the very real potential of a movie about Bertha Thompson’s life, and settles for something that often looks embarrassingly close to a feminist episode of TV’s The Dukes of Hazzard.


    Set during the Great Depression, Boxcar Bertha follows Bertha as she and her small gang of male acquaintances turn to a life of crime, supposedly with the intention of overthrowing the tyrannous railroad empire. Hershey looks appropriately young in the titular part, and she manages to be somewhat likable and awkward, even as she’s sticking a gun in someone’s face. Her coy sassiness never grates, but the film’s insistence that she should hold her head high for her actions often does. The moustache-twirling villains that oppose her are caricatures, crafted only so they can shock us into hating them. When a dastardly sheriff calls a black inmate a “nigger”, we’re expected to seethe, and somehow ignore the fact that in the South during the 1930’s even the good guys would likely use that word. The movie’s scattershot feminist dogma gets fouled up whenever it starts to adapt a stand-by-your-man conservatism (a problem that would later come back to haunt Scorsese in his otherwise excellent Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore).

      Much of Scorsese’s eventual directorial style is on display here, but the director has little of the control that he demonstrated over it in later films. Many shots are flashy for no apparent reason, lending the impression that this movie served as a student film of sorts for the director. His trademark religious symbolism is as obvious here as a brick to the face, but his usual intelligence is nowhere to be found, outside of a duo of supporting characters that are named Powell and Pressburger. If nothing else, we can be glad that Scorsese made Boxcar Bertha in 1972, since after seeing it John Cassavetes chastised him, reprimanding him for not making films that were more personal. In 1973, he released Mean Streets, which changed everything.


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Jeremy Heilman