Friday, May 15, 2009

Backfilling: "Boxcar Bertha"

Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.

Martin Scorsese is probably my favorite living filmmaker, but somehow I’d never gotten around to Boxcar Bertha, the low-budget Roger Corman quickie/Bonnie and Clyde riff he made in 1972, between Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets. It is certainly lacking the furious momentum of those more personal early films; a jailhouse brawl, for example, has none of the kinetic energy of a similar scene in Mean Streets (comparatively, this one plays like it’s in slow motion).

So Boxcar Bertha isn’t essential Scorsese. But it’s still interesting; you can see him sweating the little details, like the contrast between the pre- and post-title fonts and the old-school opening credit sequence. The borrowing from Bonnie doesn’t feel as exploitive as it probably was, since Scorsese certainly studied (and was inspired by) the same run-and-gun thirties and forties B-pictures as Arthur Penn and screenwriters Benton and Newman. He sprinkles in plenty of atmosphere and some inspired touches, and ably showcases Barbara Hershey’s earthy beauty and David Carradine’s sideways charm. The gunplay of the final sequence is also impressive—this is one of his earliest pure action sequences, and it is a good one. Bertha is pretty low in the Scorsese canon, quality-wise, but there are enough flashes of what was to come to keep interested viewers on their toes.

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