11 February 2007 | Steffi_P
"I don't wanna steal your watch, I just wanna smash your railroad"
Boxcar Bertha is an early Scorcese, made just on the eve of his highly personal breakthrough film Mean Streets. In other words, these were the days before he could call the shots and was merely a jobbing director. It's a cheap exploitation flick, and like most B-pictures it's a cash-in knock-off of a recent hit movie in this case Bonnie and Clyde. It crams in all the essential ingredients for the genre hold-ups, union men, pinkertons, chain gangs and, of course, boxcars along with a dash of nudity and gory violence to help it sell.
The story follows the same arc as its peers likable proles take to a life of crime to escape the depression, have a number of run-ins and adventures, until they eventually meet their downfall. The screenplay is fairly lazy and predictable, although the writers have tried to inject some depth and conflict to the characters. Bill, for example, struggles to reconcile his socialist values with his individualist criminal antics. Rake is ashamed of his cushy city roots and wants desperately to prove himself. Bertha herself is portrayed as a kind of happy-go-lucky individual with no real agenda apart from living the life she enjoys and being with the man she loves. Sadly these ideas are never fully explored, and tend to get lost behind the simplistic b-action setting.
Boxcar Bertha also happens to be surprisingly loaded with religious references, painting Bill as a Jesus-like figure. Most obvious of these is the highly symbolic ending, but there are a number of more subtle hints. A scene somewhere in the middle opens with David Carradine standing before a biblical fresco, and later in the city Barbara Hershey stops to look at a film poster for The Man who Could Work Miracles. The religious angle is something which actually runs through all of Scorcese's work, rarely stated out loud but always under the surface.
Scorcese's technical style is fairly functional and not too flamboyant, but there are some hints towards the methods he would later make his own. He relies very heavily upon the editing process for impact a dynamic cut emphasises every moment of action. There aren't too many of the lengthy tracking shots that he is known for, and what camera moves there are are shaky and poorly planned, even if he really is trying to make something of them. This is all understandable though planning elaborate camera moves is very time consuming, and apparently the shoot for this picture was a mere twenty-four days. Besides, snappy editing is a good way to get something out of next to nothing in a fast-paced action flick.
It's an interesting touch to see father and son actors John and David Carradine playing each others nemeses. Both are fine actors, although unfortunately the former was largely relegated to minor supporting parts in A pictures, while the latter was usually lumbered with lead roles in B pictures. Only occasionally did either of them get to shine, and Carradine Senior is particularly good here even if it is another small role. But the real standout here is Barbara Hershey in the title role. She gives Bertha a kind of playful innocence, but allows the character to mature and show more depth of emotion towards the end of the picture.
When all's said and done, Boxcar Bertha is a cut above the average cheapie, but only a small cut. Scorcese has done a fair job with the material, and there is an occasional surprising moment of quality. It's good fun too in many places, particularly the cheeky dialogue given to Bernie Casey (Von), as well as the Laurel and Hardy-like pinkerton agents. But it also has a dull plot, annoying musical score, cheep-and-cheerful production values and is just too short to really take off.