Sunday, March 24, 2024

I hadn't seen it, but in some ways I had

Another movie that looked like it was interesting but had a synopsis that sounded like I might have seen it before was Boxcar Bertha. As it turned out, it was new to mee, but there were good reasons why it seemed familiar.

That familiarity started with the American International logo, and opening credits that inform us this is based on characters from interviews an author did with one Bertha Thompson. Now, Bertha Thompson was a wholly fictional character, although the movie is adapted from a book published in the 1930s. But all of this made me think of some other American International pictures like Bloody Mama and even more so Big Bad Mama.

Bertha, who eventually gets the nickname Boxcar, is played by Barbara Hershey. As the movie opens, she's not yet Boxcar, instead living with her father who is a crop duster some where in the south during the Depression. The rich farmer he's working far isn't satisfied, so Dad has to go up again and do some more risky work, which results in his crashing and leaving Bertha an orphan.

Bertha takes to the hobo life, and in one of the rail camps she meets Big Bill (David Carradine). He's a sort of union organizer, but it's one of those communist-type unions -- or at least the authorities would have you believe so. Because of this, Big Bill is always on the run, and Bertha joins him. The two run into a couple more men. First is Rake (Barry Primus), a card sharp who is able to fleece rich men in card games; there's also Von (Bernie Casey), who worked for Bertha's father.

The team's crime wave, and the fact that Big Bill is a union organizer, has the head of the railroad, Sartoris (John Carradine) worried. So he keeps sending his Pinkerton-like armed goons after the gang, eventually getting them when they try to hold up his train. This results in the killing of Rake, while Von and Bill get sent to prison. Bertha escaped, however, but she doesn't have anywhere to go when she can't find the cash that they had taken when the team robbed banks.

As a result, Bertha is found by the owner of a brothel, leaving Bertha to pine over Bill. At least until she runs into Von again by chance, and he knows what happened to Bill. The two may or may not be able to live happily ever after....

It's easy to see why I was wondering whether or not I had seen the movie before. Producer Roger Corman made stuff on a budget with the aim of getting a lot of product out there. And with other Depression era gangster movies having been made at American International, as well as the release a few years earlier of Bonnie and Clyde, Boxcar Bertha has a decidedly derivative feel to it.

Indeed, when the film's director, a young Martin Scorsese, showed it to his mentor John Cassavetes, Cassavetes was scathing over the movie's perceived unoriginality, exhorting Scorsese to be more original. That's a bit unfair to the movie, however. Despite being very much a genre picture on a budget, it's not a bad little movie at all. While Scorsese would go on to much bigger and better things, Boxcar Bertha isn't anything to be ashamed of, and definitely worth a watch.

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