Martin Scorsese had less control over his second film than any other in his career, and as a result it’s his least distinctive release, even if it required a certain amount of ingenuity to bring some of his own style to the table. Based on Ben Reitman’s novel Sister of the Road, Boxcar Bertha is first and foremost a Roger Corman production, filled with all his usual touches – ultra-violence (at least for the time), softcore nudity, lurid freeze-frames, and driven by pace and sensuality rather than regular narrative continuity. This makes for an interesting tension between the demands of a mass producer and the emerging confidence of a highly idiosyncratic director, since you can feel Scorsese flexing against Corman’s signature from the outset. In many ways, Corman wins out, since this is easily of a piece from this era – quite flat and affectless, and interested in sensation rather than story and character, albeit sensation that’s rote and formulaic. For ninety minutes, we move from one sexual or violent set piece to another, separated by itinerant interludes where not much happens – the kind of film you’re meant to be able to chat through at the movies or drive-in without missing anything.
Nevertheless, Scorsese manages to use both parts of this formula – the kinetic scenes and the itinerant scenes – to extend his directorial skills to the level needed to execute Mean Streets one year later. From one angle, these two films seem to come from different universes, but you can also see Scorsese working here on the brutal lyricism that would make his 1970s films so unique. This originality is clear, initially, in the way he presents Bertha, a 1930s drifter and boxcar-hooper, played by Barbara Hershey in her breakout role. In a regular Corman film, it would be enough for the audience to be attracted to Bertha, but Scorsese does his best to craft her as a character, starting with the opening close-up, which introduces a considerably more introspective tone than you’d normally find in an exploitation film. This extends into a series of small observational details scattered throughout the story – moments when Scorsese moves away from the script, or works around the script, to hone his ability to speak in images and inflections. These also tend to be the most suspenseful moments in a film that is otherwise interested primarily in violent and sexual spectacle, rather than genuine tension.
Corman’s films always have a certain peripetatic momentum, since they operate by moving us fluidly from spectacle to spectacle. Scorsese’s most dramatic directorial gesture here is to pair this with the itinerant melancholy of New Hollywood, anticipating the rambling anomie of his later characters. Corman’s films often don’t make much sense outside the jaunt of going to the cinema to see them, but Scorsese’s more wistful pacing means there are whole scenes here that hold up well today, especially when he is able to untether the characters from Joyce and John Corrington’s fairly formulaic script. The action never strays too far from the railway, which propels the main plot points of the film – Bertha meeting Big Bill Shelly, a drifter played by David Carradine, and then joining Bill’s gang to rob a series of banks across the American South. Yet Scorsese also emphasises the slowness of trains during this period, allowing the film itself to amble along at a slow and steady pace, leaving him ample time to imprint his own signature on things. In one of the most memorable small moments, we follow Bertha as she wanders down a street, cruising and perusing the posters outside a movie theatre, foreshadowing the love of film history that would become so essential to Scorsese’s outlook.
Yet while Scorsese uses the railway to enhance the peripatetic interludes in Corman’s universe, he’s just as original in filling in the kinetic spectacles as well. The film includes a dramatic car crash and a dramatic train crash, and starts with a propulsive concatenation of vehicles that sets the events in motion. This is still one of the best openings in Scorsese’s oeuvre to date, situating us between an oncoming train and a crop duster, helmed by Bertha’s father, who complains to his employer that the wing dip makes it unsafe to takes to the skies again. Nevertheless, his employer insists that he continue dusting, and so his plane crashes and kills him right when a locomotive rounds the bend. Scorsese cuts between Bertha’s reaction, the arriving train, and the crashing aeroplane in a really powerful and evocative manner, seeming to quote Abel Gance’s La Roue in this dazzling opening montage sequence.
Having partly reinvented Corman’s house style in his own image, Scorsese is also able to offer a pithy take on the 1930s, Depression-era backdrops that were so precious to New Hollywood directors. With tongue slightly in cheek, Scorsese here presents the 30s as a poorer but freer time, when Civil Rights and feminism weren’t necessary for men, women and African-American folk to band together against oppression. Bill, Bertha’s lover, is a Union man in both senses of the word, fighting industrial overlords while continuing the Northern push against residual Confederate supporters. At times, it feels like Scorsese is trying to restore leftists in the present with their edginess, while at other times it feels like he is trying to affirm the edginess of New Hollywood leftists by hearkening back to their forebears in the past. Unlike a regular Corman vehicle, however, the film never decides between these two options, instead dramatizing their tensions in the robbery scenes that occupy most of the second act, where they unfold like fantasies of the pre-Civil Rights 30s from the perspective of the 70s.
More specifically, and with tongue a little more in cheek, Scorsese often appears to be nostalgic for a time when liberal use of the “n-word” on both sides supposedly made it easier to discard the niceties of identity politics and get on with the job of fighting bigots. One of the paradoxes of Corman’s exploitation cinema is that it often pairs regressive racial attitudes with expanded roles for black folk, and Scorsese takes that tension to its limit here, through the character of Von Morton, one of Bill’s sidekicks, played by Bernie Casey. Time and again, Von Morton draws on Hollywood archetypes of black folk to trick his victims – or just to remind them of the role he’s supposed to be playing – most notably when he dresses up as a servant boy during a train heist. Scorsese films this scene beautifully, emphasising the apparently inexplicable fact of every member of the dining car giving up their jewellery graciously to Von Morton, before a change in angle shows a gun concealed under his napkin.
Scorsese also adds a languorous and at times gorgeous naturalism to the evolving relationship between Bertha and Bill. While Bertha is not all that present for large stretches of the film that bears her name, she’s a figure for its propulsive drive – in one great scene she makes bank hostages hop up and down, just because she can – so it’s quite touching when she and Bill finally reunite at the end. Suddenly, in these final scenes, it feels like we’re in a different movie – or as if we’ve been propelled ahead to Scorsese’s classic works, since he resolves the fim’s figurative field through his own unique film language here, more or less discarding the script to do so, in an ending that almost entirely plays out through images and abstract sound.
On the one hand, Scorsese’s capacity for lyrical ultra-violence reaches a peak here, as the phallic potency of Bertha and Bill’s shotgun bursts clothes and skin wide open, producing fountains of torrenting blood. On the other hand, Scorsese’s ability to pair the momentum of a Corman film with New Hollywood lyricism constellates around his final set piece – the crucifixion of Bill, by bank owners, to the side of a train. Brutal and lyrical at the same time, this tableau presents Bill and Bertha as Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, starting a fusion of sacred and profane in Scorsese’s career that would continue through The Last Temptation of Christ to Silence. It also culminates this particular film’s alternation between stasis and movement with one haunting image – Bill nailed to the train, and filmed from the train, as it accelerates, curving, while Bertha, running alongside, decelerates and finally fades from view.
You couldn’t ask for a better sequence to resolve the unique pace and poetry that Scorsese brings to this very generic set up – or a better punishment for Bertha and Bill, since, by crucifying Bill to the train, the bankers have imprinted the stasis that train-hopping is meant to alleviate onto the very line of flight itself. The bankers seem to be saying that all Bertha and Bill’s restless movement amounts to nothing, killing Bill and scarring Bertha so deeply that she’ll probably never take a train again. Yet this just makes the end of the film feel even more restless – and Scorsese even more restless. Perhaps he finally needed to work within this more restricted and generic framework to propel him to the first masterpiece of his career – or to make him recognise that he wanted to continue the legacy of great films that had come before him. For this final sequence is, finally, Scorsese’s exploitation rework of Buster Keaton sitting on the cogs of The General, evoking a restless ambition to join the annals of film history that wouldn’t (and couldn’t) be contained by Corman’s rules and restrictions.