BOXCAR BERTHA B-
USA (88 mi) 1972 d: Martin Scorsese
They call it a depression...that's the word I got for this empty feeling inside.
—Boxcar Bertha (Barbara Hershey)
A Depression-era exploitation flick from B-movie producer Roger Corman, who also helped apprentice directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, James Cameron and John Sayles launch their careers. It was Corman who taught Scorsese that films could be made with next to no money or time, preparing him well for the challenges to come in the movie industry. The Corman mantra was making films replete with sex and violence. Other than an uncredited stint directing a few short scenes in Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969), this is only Scorsese’s second film, where “Roger just told me, ‘Read the script, rewrite as much as you want, but remember, Marty, that you must have some nudity at least every fifteen pages. Not complete nudity, but maybe a little off the shoulder, or some leg just to keep the audience interest up.” The film is loosely based upon the life of Bertha Thompson, a fictional composite of three women described in Sister of the Road – The Autobiography of Boxcar Bertha, by Dr. Ben L. Reitman, a tramp, hobo, doctor, and social activist, providing a provocative glimpse into a way of life most never see or ever hear about. Bertha grew up in communes, railway yards, and hobo camps that her mother operated, practicing and preaching free love. Her education was listening to vagrants, socialists, and other radicals, cris-crossing the country by rails by the time she was a mere 16, already expert in the hoboing way of life before she met up with various labor organizers in the early 30’s, attempting to reform the practices of the railways by advocating strikes, where they met up with their share of shotguns and violence. While her wandering lifestyle led to personal horrors and nightmarish pitfalls, for the most part she remained upbeat, an optimist determined to make the best of it, never thinking ill of her fellow wanderers, always trying to fathom why people do the things they do. She represents the many thousands of men and women who dropped out of mainstream society to live a life on their own terms, individualistic stories rarely told in the history books.
Shot by cinematographer John Stephens, whose range includes Frankenheimer’s futuristic SECONDS (1966) to Tom Laughlin’s insipid BILLY JACK (1971), in 24 days with a $600,000 budget on location in Reader, Arkansas, the film is fortunate to have Barbara Hershey in the lead role, appearing in nearly every shot of the film, a California native mastering an Ozark accent, always giving the impression she was a born natural, a contemporary of the Bonnie and Clyde bank robber outlaws on the run during the Depression. The film is significant as it’s the first Scorsese film, a director known for his depiction of masculinity, to focus upon a woman, a foreshadowing of later films ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974), New York, New York (1977), and THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993). It was also Hershey who presented the director with the book The Last Temptation of Christ, which in 1988 became one of Scorsese’s most ambitious and controversial films. What makes Bertha a Scorsese character is her wayward nature, an isolated and lost soul who is in danger of losing herself to her own loneliness, afraid to live a purposeless life without love. The opening credit sequence is one of the best things in the film, a montage of locomotives in dissolves set to the sounds of a rhythmic harmonica, where right off the bat the scene is set between the capitalist big bosses from the railroad and the common union workers looking out for the little man, where the multiple shots of a locomotive may as well be a phallic symbol for male brute force and power. Scorsese was nearly fired at the outset for spending so much time filming trains from every angle and speed, but they are often used as transitions between scenes. This is a film about class warfare, where the railroad bosses send in their thugs to burn and destroy the strikers living in hobo camps, which in their view are filled with “reds and Bolsheviks,” including public enemy number one, legendary social agitator and union rabble rouser Big Bill Shelley (David Carradine), who they aim to murder outright, no questions asked. Carradine and Hershey were lovers in real life at the time, and keeping it in the family, his father John Carradine ironically appears later as the corporate railway magnate keeping the hired gun thugs on Shelley’s trail.
While true to salacious exploitation flicks, Hershey has many nude scenes with Carradine, some of which were featured in a more explicit spread in Playboy magazine at the time, Corman required sex, violence, or explosions every fifteen pages of script, having his hand in every aspect of the lurid promotion of the film. When Scorsese showed a rough cut of his film to fellow director John Cassavetes, who would have just completed MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ (1971) where Scorsese worked as a sound effects cutter, his response was reportedly: “Marty, you've just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit,” before adding, “It’s a good movie, but don't get hooked into that (commercial) stuff -- just try to do something personal,” encouraging him to work on the films he wanted to make instead of someone else’s project. While there’s not a lot of character development, there is a lot of character, especially in Hershey’s performance, where Bertha and Bill hook up while hopping trains and become an interesting team, along with a large-sized black friend (who in real life played professional football), Bernie Casey as Von Morton, a soft-spoken harmonica player and loyal friend of the common man. Once the goons burn them out of their hobo camps, they continue to hound them on the rails, as ironically it’s the only way they can guarantee free passage during a Depression, eventually arresting Bill and Von, where Bertha engineers a jailbreak, where they’ve been cornered into a notorious life of criminality, reading about themselves in the papers, eventually becoming fairly proficient bank robbers, even robbing the railroad executives. Scorsese hasn’t time or money to set up detailed action sequences, so instead he’s gone for a somewhat trashy but highly atmospheric mood piece, something along the lines of Robert Altman’s THIEVES LIKE US (1974), which stars Carradine’s younger brother Keith. While the last half hour is surprisingly good, the men again incarcerated, where Bertha, alone and destitute, falls into a house of prostitution, where Scorsese interestingly enough is one of her clients. Holding the tension until the very end, it’s a Scorsese-like finale, filled with an interesting mix of religious symbolism and existential ambiguity, a bleak look into the prophetic politics of the era, where corporate interests were protected using a fascist model, violently suppressing unions and individual freedoms in the process.