Boxcar Bertha (1972)

In 1967, Martin Scorsese made his first movie, the black and white film I Call First, which was later retitled to Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Originally intended as the first of the director’s semiautobiographical J. R. Trilogy — along with Mean Streets — it was followed by this movie, an adaption of American anarchist Ben L. Reitman’s semi-autobiographical Sister of the Road. Made for Roger Corman, it taught Scorsese that movies could be made cheaply yet still entertain audiences while reinforcing his friend and mentor John Cassavetes’ belief that the auteur should make the movies that he wanted to make, instead of someone else’s projects.

Actually, Cassavetes was pretty blunt. After Scorsese showed him the finished product, the actor embraced him and said, “Marty, you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit. It’s a good picture, but you’re better than the people who make this kind of movie. Don’t get hooked into the exploitation market, just try and do something different.”

Boxcar Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) and “Big” Bill Shelly (David Carradine) are train robbers and lovers embroiled in the plight of railroad workers as they try to unionize. Bertha is implicated in a murder and the two become fugitives.

Bernie Casey shows up as Von Morton and Carradine’s father John is also in this as H. Buckram Sartoris. Seeing as how it was a Corman picture, it wasn’t always intended to be an art project, as the producer wanted another Bloody Mama.

Hershey said that the movie was “a lot of fun even though it’s terribly crippled by Roger Corman and the violence and sex. But between the actors and Marty Scorsese the director, we had a lot of fun. We really had characters down but one tends to not see all that, because you end up seeing all the blood and sex.”

There was a rumor that Roger Corman’s wife Julie Corman had actually obtained the rights to the story from Bertha Thompson herself. The story goes that Corman had tracked her down to a hotel in San Francisco, but the woman wouldn’t let her in. It’s also a great lesson in carnie PR work, as the author explained that there wasn’t ever a real Bertha. In fact, she was a combination of at least three women he knew.

I have to wonder how the Cormans reacted when they finally saw this and all of the violence that was usually so exciting in the early 70’s new Hollywood pictures felt so doomed here.

You can watch this on Amazon Prime.

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