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Boxcar Bertha

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    Ian Jane
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  • Boxcar Bertha



    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: October 11th, 2016.
    Director: Martin Scorsese
    Cast: David Carradine, Barbara Hershey, Barry Primus, Bernie Casey, Victor Argo, John Carradine
    Year: 1972
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    An early directorial effort from Martin Scorsese produced by Roger Corman for American International Pictures, 1972's Boxcar Bertha is set in depression era America. Here it follows the exploits of a beautiful young woman named Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) who loses her father when his cropduster goes down.

    Unsure what to do with herself, she hits the rails and takes on the life of a vagabond but soon falls for Big Bill Shelley (David Carradine), a would be labor organizer. They make love in a boxcar. Soon enough she's running with Bill and a few other friends, a gambler named Rake Brown (Barry Primus) a gentle giant named Von Morton (Bernie Casey). When Rake gets into trouble and Bertha shoots a man to save his life, it sets off what seems to be a series of violent events that will follow them over the course of the film.

    As Bertha and her crew turn into a dime store version of Bonnie and Clyde, they run afoul of a railroad tycoon named H. Buckram Sartoris (John Carradine). Eventually the gang breaks up and Bertha winds up working in a brothel, but fate has a way of bringing these characters together time and time again, and that history of violence is always hot on their heels.

    Far from a perfect film, Boxcar Bertha is nevertheless a really interesting one and a picture worth checking out. The way that the film moves between humor and action and drama and romance is pretty erratic, but if nothing else this is entertaining stuff. The movie feels more like Big Bad Mama than it does any of Scorsese's better known pictures. This was obviously made on a modest budget like many of Corman's productions but the end result is a decent looking film. There are times where the wardrobe looks a little too modern for the era in which the picture is set but there are a lot of great scenes with some vintage trains and some great looking train stations that add some atmosphere and southern flavor to the film. The film also benefits from a score that is jaunty enough at times to highlight the more lighthearted moments of the picture but still able to provide an effective emotional punch to the darker, more serious moments.

    The performances here are solid. John Carradine is his typically watchable self in his supporting role as one of the film's villains. He doesn't stretch outside his comfort zone here but as is the norm with his work, he's fun to watch. Younger Carradine David is pretty charismatic here as the film's hero and chief love interest. He's charming and whip smart. Barry Primus is pretty decent as the gambler, he's amusing to watch and also has some good screen presence, while Bernie Casey actually steals pretty much every scene he's in, particularly the film's gruesome finale. Barbara Hershey, however, is the film's real star She's pretty, she's charming and she has that sort of innocent naivety to her, at least to start with, that makes her character endearing even when she shouldn't be. She would go on to star in bigger, more acclaimed films but her work here is impressive.

    Scorsese's direction doesn't stand out the way that you might expect it to, but there are moments here where it feels more like his work and less than Corman's (which is the vibe you get for most of the film). The ending, without wanting to spoil things, has his stamp on it and the moments in the brothel also feel like his work. This may have been made fast and cheap as drive-in fodder but it works.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Boxcar Bertha looks good on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in AVC encoded 1080p high definition properly framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.85.1 widescreen. Detail is consistently strong in both close ups and medium/long distance shots while color reproduction is nice and natural. The transfer shows no signs of digital trickery, so expect a nice, natural and very pleasing amount of film grain, the kind that reminds us what this movie was shot on without ever proving distracting. Skin tones look great, black levels are nice and solid and contrast looks good too. This is a strong transfer and quite a nice improvement over the previous DVD release (which itself looked good). Print damage is minor when it shows up, just small white specks rather than nasty scratches or marks, while skin tones look nice and natural. All in all, this is a very organic looking transfer and it suits the movie nicely.

    The only audio option on the disc is an English language DTS-HD Mono track, with optional closed captioning offered up in English only. While it's a bit limited in range the quality of the mix is quite solid, as it demonstrates nice clarity throughout. There are no problems of note with any hiss or distortion and the levels are nicely balanced. When those shotguns open up at during the finale, you'll feel it.

    Extra are limited to a theatrical trailer, the film's isolated score in DTS-HD format, an MGM 90th Anniversary trailer, menus and chapter selection. Inside the clear Blu-ray keepcase alongside the disc is an insert booklet of liner notes from Julie Kirgo that offer some insight into the film's history, Scorsese's involvement in it and some thoughts on the performances.

    The Final Word:

    Boxcar Bertha isn't Scorsese's masterpiece but it's a pretty fun drive-in style picture with some great characters, some solid action and… heart. Fine performances from Hershey, David Carradine and especially Bernie Casey highlight the film but we get some solid action, some good suspense and some great cinematography and period detail to appreciate as well. Twilight Time's Blu-ray isn't stacked with extras but it does look and sound quite good. Recommended!

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!



















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