Originally conceived as a period crime drama, set during the Depression just like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), but closer in tone and style to the much more exploitive Bloody Mama (1970), Roger Corman's violent account of real-life criminal Ma Barker and her murderous brood, Boxcar Bertha (1972) turned out to be something much more ambitious and engaging than the lurid promotional campaign which promised nudity, sex and violence. Corman's hand was clearly evident in every aspect of the film's publicity but the movie wasn't the typical drive-in fare from American International Pictures due to the young, untested director Martin Scorsese.
The New York filmmaker, who had made his feature film debut in 1967 with the barely distributed Who's That Knocking at My Door? (aka I Call First), had relocated to Los Angeles in 1971 to assist in the editing of Medicine Ball Caravan, a cross-country concert tour documentary that attempted to duplicate the success of Woodstock (1970), a film Scorsese also helped edit. It was while he was working as a sound effects cutter on John Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) that Scorsese was offered his first Hollywood feature. "I had met Roger Corman the first month I got to Hollywood, in January 1971," Scorsese recalled, "but I heard nothing from him for months. He'd wanted me to do a sequel to Bloody Mama, but then he offered me Boxcar Bertha. I worked hard preparing Boxcar Bertha, laying out every shot, five hundred shots in drawings, but Roger Corman said, "Let me see what your planning is like." He went through the first ten pages, then flipped the rest and said, "You're fine because you've got to shoot this picture in twenty-four days, and you've got all the shots. If you're this well planned, you're going to be okay." (From Martin Scorsese: Interviews, edited by Peter Brunette).
Scorsese was given a $600,000 budget for shooting on location in Arkansas with only three days allotted for the rerecording mix but he was eager to accept the challenge, promising to work in Corman's demand for sex, violence or explosions every fifteen pages of the script. Based on Sister of the Road, the 1937 autobiography of Bertha Thompson, co-authored with Dr. Ben Reitman, the Boxcar Bertha screenplay was adapted by Joyce H. and John William Corrington and then rewritten by Scorsese (uncredited). While the movie takes extensive liberties with the true story, it does capture the Depression era milieu, focusing on the hobo jungles, whorehouses and freight car hopping that befitted the open road lifestyle of its free spirited heroine.
Although Scorsese's debut feature Who's That Knocking at My Door? proved that he had talent to burn, the young director was still learning the technical aspects of making a professional feature and credits cinematographer John Stephens (Seconds , Billy Jack ) with helping him understand the importance of shooting coverage material as opposed to just concentrating on master shots. Scorsese also acknowledges assistant producer Paul Rapp and the AIP crew on Boxcar Bertha as invaluable instructors in his Hollywood education.
When Scorsese's first few days of shooting were screened for the AIP studio executives, however, he was almost fired from the project. Executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff complained to Roger Corman, "There was nothing but train wheels going around and around, train wheels going this way, train wheels going that way...For Christsakes Roger, what have we got here, a fornicating documentary on trains?" Scorsese's intention was to shoot all of the transition train footage first to use later as cutaways in the narrative and once Corman explained that to Arkoff, Scorsese was allowed to continue without close supervision.
While Boxcar Bertha was a strictly-for-hire project, Scorsese's fingerprints are all over it and you can see his emerging trademark style and thematic interests in various scenes from the use of the zoom lens in a sequence where the gang runs through a tunnel to unexpected bursts of violence to religious iconography that references his Catholic upbringing (Carradine's Christ-like activist character is crucified in the final scene). Some film scholars have also noted homages to favorite Scorsese films such as The Wizard of Oz (Bertha's first appearance in the film in long pigtails references Dorothy's appearance in the 1939 MGM film), David Lean's The Wife of General Ling (1937), Zoltan Korda's Drums (1938), and Alexander Korda's The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), the latter three appearing as film posters outside a movie theatre. Like one of his idols, Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese also puts in a brief cameo appearance, playing a customer in a whorehouse.
Barbara Hershey, who was romantically involved with her co-star David Carradine at the time, later said Boxcar Bertha "was the most fun I'd ever had on a movie. We covered eight years of a story in four weeks of shooting, and that could have been a nightmare, but in this case, it was a delight. We managed to improvise. I remember Marty designing a shot in the reflection of a car. I'd never been with a director who thought like that." Hershey also recalls introducing Scorsese to the novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which ironically enough, she would make with him almost sixteen years later in 1988, playing Mary Magdalene. David Carradine, in an interview for Psychotronic Magazine, claimed that it was He, not Hershey, who encouraged the director to read the Nikos Kazantzakis novel. Regardless of who should take the credit, Carradine and Hershey enjoyed a creative collaboration with Scorsese and were completely comfortable with the nudity and sex scenes required of them. The couple's very public love affair also helped generate some interest in the film, especially after they appeared in a layout for Playboy magazine that was shot on a movie-inspired boxcar set and was much more explicit than the actual film.
When Boxcar Bertha opened theatrically it was paired on a double bill with AIP's 1000 Convicts and a Woman (1971) and was ignored by most major film critics. Still, there were a few who caught it and reviewed it favorably such as Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times who wrote, "Boxcar Bertha is a weirdly interesting movie, and not really the sleazy exploitation film the ads promise....Director Martin Scorsese has gone for mood and atmosphere more than for action, and his violence is always blunt and unpleasant never liberating and exhilarating, as the New Violence is supposed to be." Howard Thompson of The New York Times also endorsed it, writing, "Boxcar Bertha, believe it or not, is an interesting surprise...The thoughtful, ironic script thins only toward the middle and the whole thing has been beautifully directed by Martin Scorsese, who really comes into his own here." Dennis Hunt of The San Francisco Chronicle was one of the few critics to pan it completely, stating "Boxcar Bertha is a dismal imitation of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde...[The film] features carelessly developed, vacuous characters and was made on a budget too spare for the acquisition of the huge number of cars, clothes and sets necessary to properly establish the '30s look."
Reviews aside, Roger Corman and the executives at AIP realized they had a uniquely talented director in their midst and assigned Scorsese to do I Escaped from Devil's Island (1973) in Costa Rica with Jim Brown. But Scorsese was destined for something greater than another AIP exploitation film. "Next thing I know," he recalled, I showed a two and a half hour rough cut of Boxcar Bertha to a bunch of friends Carradine and all the people in the picture and Corman and Cassavetes. Cassavetes took me aside the next day and spoke to me for three hours. He said, "Don't do any more exploitation pictures. Do something that you really [want] do something better"...I said, "The only thing I have is this Season of the Witch." Scorsese described the storyline to Cassavetes who advised him to rewrite it and make it more personal. As a result the revised Season of the Witch screenplay became Mean Streets and when it premiered at the New York Film Festival of 1973, Scorsese was immediately hailed as one of the most exciting directors of his generation, joining the hallowed ranks of such contemporaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Brian De Palma.
Producer: Roger Corman, Samuel Z. Arkoff (uncredited)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Joyce H. Corrington, John William Corrington; Ben L. Reitman (book "Sister of the Road")
Cinematography: John Stephens
Music: Gib Guilbeau, Thad Maxwell
Film Editing: Buzz Feitshans
Cast: Barbara Hershey ('Boxcar' Bertha Thompson), David Carradine ('Big' Bill Shelly), Barry Primus (Rake Brown), Bernie Casey (Von Morton), John Carradine (H. Buckram Sartoris), Victor Argo (McIver #1), David R. Osterhout (McIver #2)
by Jeff Stafford
Martin Scorsese: Interviews, edited by Peter Brunette
Martin Scorsese: A Journey by Mary Pat Kelly
Psychotronic Video: Interview with David Carradine by Tom Rainone Filmfacts
Martin Scorsese: A Biography by Vincent Lobrutto
The Films of Martin Scorsese: 1963-77, Authorship and Context by Leighton Grist