Saturday, October 8, 2016

Bloody Mama

So I got to watch Bloody Mama a few weeks back having recorded it when it showed up on TCM as part of the salute to American International Pictures. It's available from the TCM Shop, so I'm OK with doing a full-length post on the movie.

The movie starts off telling us that any reference to Ma Barker is wholly intentional; that's followed by the four Barker brothers: Herman (Don Stroud), Lloyd (Robert De Niro), Arthur (Clint Kimbrough), and Fred (Robert Walden) chasing after a young woman. Apparently they do something less than gentlemanly to the young woman, because her father shows up with vengeance on his mind. Their mother, "Ma" Barker (Shelley Winters) is tired of life in the middle of nowhere in the Ozarks and would like something better anyway, so she takes the four sons and goes off with them.

But what to do? It's the early days of the depression, and honest work is hard to come by, so they turn to a life of crime! Herman takes up with the prostitute Mona (Diane Varsi), while Fred winds up in prison which is where he meets Kevin (Bruce Dern), who's up for a little prison rape. Fred and Kevin break out of prison, reunite with the rest of the family, and the seven of them (the four boys, Ma, Kevin, and Mona) all start running around the south.

But it's not a particularly happy family. Ma is a bit of a tough taskmaster, and wants to run things her way. When they kidnap a wealthy man (Pat Hingle) for the ransom it will surely bring, Ma thinks that actually letting him go will cause problems, so she instructs her sons to kill the man! More disturbing is that she has an incestuous streak in her, wanting to sleep with her grown sons. It warps all of them in their own way, most notably with Lloyd turning to whatever drugs he can find.

Eventually, of course, Ma Barker was killed by the feds. The movie shows that, although it takes considerable liberties with the rest of the gang. In real life, Herman was already dead before the events of the movie. Only Fred would die in the shootout that also killed Ma; the other two sons and the genesis for the Kevin character all survived. And there's some debate over whether Ma was actually involved in the crime to any extent greater than being an accomplice and protecting her sons.

Still, Bloody Mama is interesting to watch. It's a flawed movie in many ways, thanks in no small part to Winters going way over the top, and the movie veering wildly in how Ma's personality should be portrayed. But all of that makes it entertaining in a low-budget fascinating way. I'm not certain how much money I'd drop on the DVD, but watching it if it shows up on TCM is certainly worth the hour and a half.

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