Boxcar Bertha ★★★

I haven't reached the cinephilic stage to say this was out of Scorsese "completism". (Besides a handful of docs, Who's That Knocking at My Door?, New York, New York, The Color of Money and Kundun remain on my checklist.) I mention this because it's considered the sleazy, exploitative nadir of his work; adapting Boxcar Bertha Thompson's "Sister of the Road" memoir, and lasciviously turning it into a carnage shoot-'em-up tale. A shame it revels in these shady details, and only alludes to the Depression's unionist insights, when that could've been further explored.

Does this really constitute a Scorsese film, or producer Roger Corman's instead? Knowing the latter's predilection for Southern-cooked pulp, it's easy to see who took the reigns, particularly since it only marked Scorsese's sophomore effort. Although this recognizes his ability to enliven a certain era (the religious iconography is even intact!), the Corman seediness is very much prevalent, too. Between the brothel montages, and bodies flaying in gunshots, they're the baser elements it sadly chooses to be. At least when the fugitives rob the rich, it cranks into proper gear.

However, as a character-study for rural wanderer Bertha (played with fetching charisma by Barbara Hershey), she holds this afloat. And I'd even attribute that to this varying gang—David Carradine engages as her lover/union organizer-turned-robber Shelley, while I liked the uneasiness of tailored gambler Barry Primus' Rake Brown, and Bernie Casey's consoling turn as Von. (The latter's empathetic turn in an initial sequence, where Bertha's father dies in a plane accident, is quite poignant.) From therein, each of their trains exploits are accompanied by a jaunty harmonica score, and make the brief runtime move with ease.

After the gobsmacking crucifixion climax—which I've never seen in a Depression-era crime flick before, this also ends on a rather powerful note. (Even in his directorial infancy, Scorsese did mark the brutalism of his Catholic leanings.) He does well by withholding the final shot; Bertha dwarfed from afar by the locomotive speed, yet the savage transport remains in our full view. If this ditched the repellent navel-gazing, and further traversed how railroaders would suffer, then I definitely would've been more responsive to it. Still, an adequate runaway in Scorsese's canon, despite not having creative control.