During the depression, a union leader and a young woman become criminals to exact revenge on the management of a railroad.
Known for his eclectic catalog of low budget cult flicks, legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman has helped to launch the careers of many celebrated Hollywood directors, including the likes of James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Johnathan Demme, and Ron Howard. And in 1972, he teamed up with a young up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of Martin Scorsese. The resulting picture, 'Boxcar Bertha,' serves as a notable stepping stone for the now acclaimed auteur, presenting an interesting mishmash of Scorsese's emerging style and typical Corman-produced exploitation thrills -- blending spirited cinematic technique with a little bit of skin here and there.
Set during the Depression, the story focuses on a young woman, Bertha (Barbara Hershey), as she teams up with a union leader, Bill (David Carradine), following the death of her father. After the pair run into trouble with the law, they hit the road, form a gang, and start robbing trains, hoping to get back at a group of corrupt railroad managers. But a life of crime proves to be more than just frivolous adventure, and soon the couple's very lives are put into danger.
Only Scorsese's second feature length effort at the time, the film presents the now veteran director during his early, comparatively inexperienced days, leading to a predictably raw yet bold sense of style. Though they lack the more refined edge found in his future works, the film's potent aesthetic flourishes result in some lively camera and editing techniques, elevating the runtime's otherwise basic genre conventions.
An early fight scene is especially notable, employing some jarring cuts to create an unsettling rhythm with each punch. Likewise, Scorsese uses sudden cuts and key lines of dialogue to tie transitioning scenes together. For instance, in one sequence, Bertha meets a man named Rake (Barry Primus) and starts to teach him how to speak in a southern accent. As he tries to get the hang of pronouncing the word "dear," we quickly cut to the character saying the same word perfectly later on in the story, connecting the otherwise abrupt edit while efficiently speeding the plot along.
Various zooms, dissolves, and freeze-frames are peppered throughout the movie as well, heightening the action and romance. This all culminates in the film's powerful final shot. Taken from the vantage point of a moving train, the image features one character struggling to catch up on foot while the camera simultaneously struggles to keep them in the frame, dramatically remaining fixed as the character tragically recedes into the background.
Beyond the director's burgeoning stylistic prowess, the rest of the film offers a fairly standard train robber narrative, complete with some requisite exploitation conventions -- including intermittent nudity, a few fistfights, some shootouts, and even a car chase. From a purely scripting standpoint, these elements are all pretty mediocre and a little uneven but, again, Scorsese's cinematic approach helps to add a little visual subtext to the proceedings. Likewise, the cast turns in some solid performances, transitioning well between a playfully bumbling caper tone and a more serious mood once the stakes are raised and certain characters start to question the ethics of their criminal actions.
Decidedly rough around the edges but marked by a few compelling splashes of style, 'Boxcar Bertha' showcases a now legendary filmmaker on the cusp of fully developing his craft. While it lacks the sophistication and depth of Scorsese's later films, the movie represents an interesting approach to Corman exploitation flick sensibilities and a key career step for its director -- helping to pave the way toward subsequent 1970s classics like 'Mean Streets' and 'Taxi Driver.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Twilight Time brings 'Boxcar Bertha' to Blu-ray on a single BD-25 disc that comes housed in a keepcase. Like all of the company's releases, the disc is a limited edition with a run of 3,000 copies. An insert with an essay by Julie Kirgo is included as well.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. A bit rough around the edges but free from any major technical issues, this is an uneven yet serviceable transfer.
The source print is in decent condition, but there are some patches here and there with specks and wear. Thankfully, the majority of the film cleans up well offering a modest yet authentic picture with a moderate to heavy layer of natural grain. The image can be comparatively soft, however, especially during indoor scenes, but overall clarity is solid, resulting in nice fine textures (like the patterns on Bertha's dresses). With that said, detail is often inconsistent from scene to scene, and the video has a fairly flat and slightly faded look with occasionally murky shadows. Still, the movie's rustic color palette provides some appropriately earthy tones, and certain wardrobe choices pop nicely from the screen.
Though most of the transfer's inconsistencies are likely inherent to the film's age and modest production, the picture can be a tad underwhelming.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 1.0 track along with optional English SDH subtitles. Much like the video, the audio gets the job done but comes with a few age-related issues.
Speech is relatively clean, but there is some occasional crackle and peeking in the high frequencies here and there. Likewise, a few lines come through with a comparatively muffled quality and there are a few background clicks. The overall single-channel soundstage is solid, offering modest yet effective atmospherics. A whizzing propeller, loud gunshots, and a plane crash result in some particularly noteworthy oomph, bringing some decent kick to the otherwise restrained mix. The score, including some recurring harmonica cues, also carries suitable range. With that said, the track can get a tad indistinct when there's too much activity at once, blurring the frequencies.
The film's age and low budget are evident throughout the audio, but the presentation remains serviceable.
A simple train robbery yarn slightly elevated by the burgeoning style of a young Martin Scorsese, 'Boxcar Bertha' is an interesting, albeit flawed, early effort from the now legendary director. Though naturally filmic, the modest video is a bit uneven and the audio mix shows some signs of age. Sadly, supplements are pretty lacking, with only a trailer and an isolated score. Offering a tad more substance than your average exploitation flick, but still quite rough around the edges, this disc is worth a look for fans of Scorsese and producer Roger Corman.