Twitter Plot Summary: Exploitation interpretation of the story of criminal Boxcar Bertha.
Five Point Summary:
1. Random nudity part 1.
2. Nice train.
3. Random nudity part 2.
4. Working on the railroad.
5. It’s all gone a bit comic book…
Boxcar Bertha is based on the exploits of the titular train robber (Barbara Hershey) and her beau Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine) who, after being embroiled in the woes of railroad workers in the American South, become fugitives after Bertha shoots a gambling man and their group rob a train. That is essentially the whole story, albeit with a couple of obligatory nude scenes for Hershey and Carradine as they form a relationship. It’s an exploitation flick, after all.
And Boxcar Bertha remains a relatively low budget exploitation film holding a loose narrative that, whilst well directed, feels like half of the narrative is missing, such is its haphazard editing. The prompt 24 day shooting schedule does it no favours, giving Scorsese no opportunity to complete reshoots or expand on areas that don’t quite work. This should come as no surprise given that it’s part of Roger Corman’s production stable, a film producer who has been prolific over the years for offering low budgets and short filming schedules to up and coming directors. Luckily for us, Scorsese didn’t find himself trapped in this world of low budget nonsense, and despite doing his best with the material at hand can’t save this from being just another Corman-produced piece of nonsense.
The four main characters are thrown together far too quickly for them to be introduced properly, nor does the real life story of Bertha receive sufficient time to be explored in enough detail. It’s almost as if the script wants you to move onto the next scene a few seconds before the current one has ended, and the action has to be crammed in before the premature cut otherwise you’ll miss even more.
There are the hints of a serious theme that the script teases but never offers opportunity to be explored – Shelly the union man who finds himself becoming a criminal through circumstance rather than intent, Bertha herself moving from pillar to post following the death of her father, and again falling into a life of crime and enjoying it.
Scorsese’s direction is the strongest point here, he may have been rushed in the production but his camera placement and directorial style shines through all of this, creating a colour version of a 1930s era caper film. The production values too aren’t all bad, with many of the locations eliciting the feel of the 1920s. When the violence happens it has the same level of impact as a comic book, all bright red blood and over the top reactions to being shot in the chest, and a badly structured Christ metaphor no doubt designed to shock.
Perhaps because of the rushed filming schedule the performances don’t get much room to breathe, and whilst the central pair of David Carradine and Barbara Hershey works well (they were a couple at the time of filming), there is little else to recommend amongst the rushed delivery and frenzied performances. It may not be one of Scorsese’s better movies, but it’s clear even from this early stage what he was capable of. Sadly in this case he was working on limited resources yet still somehow turned out a moderately entertaining story, even if it does still feel like half of the script wasn’t shot.