Marty Takes the B Train
Although it is clearly a Roger Corman-produced “exploitation” picture with the requisite qualities of sex, brutal violence and anarchic spirit indicative of a “B-picture,” Boxcar Bertha (1972) is also a seminal movie in the half-century moviemaking career of Martin Scorsese. The shambling but colorful Bonnie and Clyde-like exploits of the fictitious Depression-era lady outlaw (Barbara Hershey) and her passionate affair with evangelically styled union organizer Bill Shelley (David Carradine) who was a thorn in the side of Southern railway bosses offered the fledgling director his first Hollywood break and a crash course in feature production via enrollment in what he and a generation of other outstanding picture makers would affectionately christen the School of Corman. Scorsese would tell historian Richard Schickel: “With Boxcar, I was able to take something that was abstract and design it on the page in drawings. [Reportedly over 500 of them!] I was doing what was required of the material, and I was not taken off the picture after 24 days. That was a big, big achievement.” Beyond an education from a well-honed veteran crew in meeting a tight shooting schedule and learning the ropes of filming out of sequence to maximize efficiency of resources, then-29-year-old Scorsese could also inject his love of cinema past into a project that becomes richer in the revisiting 44 years later. In detailed discussions (circa 2010 for publication the following year in the writer’s Conversations with Scorsese), Scorsese and Schickel observed that the spirit of John Ford’s disenfranchised outliers remembered from The Grapes of Wrath and Tobacco Road found their way into character depictions (Wrath co-star John Carradine, David's father, is on hand playing rapacious railroad baron H. Buckram Sartoris), and how fleeting homages to The Wizard of Oz and visual references to British period adventure movie posters could seep into what Scorsese biographer Vincent LoBrutto called the “very strict confines of the B-Youth Movie.” LoBrutto points to the presence of a one-sheet of the Alexander Korda-produced The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936) as a visual cue that strikes a chord for Bertha in her burgeoning affection for messianic activist Shelley. Meanwhile, by way of keeping the wheels moving on a pressed-for-time vehicle shooting in rural Camden, Arkansas, LoBrutto reports in Scorsese: A Biography: “When director of photography John Stephens, who had been a camera operator on John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix and Seconds, and one of the cinematographers of the indie classic Billy Jack, realized that Scorsese was directing in a master shot style with little coverage, he implored the director to get more closeups, short shots, transitional material and other coverage; Scorsese credits the experience of working with the AIP crew, especially veteran assistant director and assistant producer Paul Rapp, who Corman assigned the official rule of executive-in-charge of production, as teaching him how to make a movie.” Scorsese put it succinctly for Schickel as a crucial “learning experience which gave me the crew for Mean Streets. Without that, without having made Boxcar, there was no way I could’ve made Mean Streets.” As Academy Award® and AFI Lifetime Achievement Award winner Scorsese readies his latest film Silence, another historical period piece,for year-end release, we can now view with fresh eyes in vivid 1080p the low-budget, high-energy first Hollywood big break of a moviemaker who hasn’t stopped dazzling us for decades. Also starring Barry Primus, Bernie Casey and Victor Argo, Boxcar Bertha rolls down the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray tracks October 11. Preorders open September 28.