Who’s That Knocking at My Door is far from a good movie and features exploitation scenes, but it still has the noticeable Scorsese touch in its themes and direction. Boxcar Bertha, the second feature film directed by Scorsese, is an exploitative movie through and through almost completely free of the Scorsese creative touch.
Based on a fictional autobiography that goes by the same name, Boxcar Bertha follows the tumultuous life of a homeless woman named Bertha (Barbara Hershey) during the depression era in the southern United States. She travels from city to city via trains and meets a rail road worker named Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine). The two, along with a two other men named Rake (Barry Primus) and Von (Bernie Casey), work together to rob trains in an effort to disrupt the corrupt train industry.
After several successful train robberies, a massive bounty was placed on their heads and they were eventually tracked down some time after they left the train robbing game.
Tits and violence were aplenty in this movie living up to the exploitation name. The 70’s bright blood effects were off putting but the violence felt real and brutal and the nude Barbara Hershey is a sight to behold. This is an easily identifiable genre film that is well done, but doesn’t stand out much in the vast ocean of movies.
Scorsese showed the film to mentor John Cassavetes and after his viewing, he famously told Scorsese “you’ve just spent a whole year of your life making a piece of shit,” and “you are better than the kind of people who make this movie.” From Boxcar Bertha on, Scorsese took this line to heart.
I watched Scorsese’s next movie Mean Streets after watching Boxcar Bertha and listened to the commentary for the movie. In the commentary for Mean Streets Scorsese reveals that he only had 24 days to shoot Boxcar Bertha forcing him to become more disciplined which helped him become a better director.
There isn’t a lot that I find discussion worthy with Boxcar Bertha. It led to some interesting Wikipedia searches on the Carradine family (David’s father makes a cameo in the movie) where I learned that the Kill Bill star is believed to have died while jerking off and that Barbara Hershey was once married to the much younger Lost star Naveen Andrews (Sayid). It is a straight forward 70’s exploitation movie with a couple memorable scenes.
One of those stand out scenes is when the crew is escaping jail via a stolen car. They coincidently run the sheriff’s car off the road who proceeds in chasing them resulting in one of the most peculiar car chase scenes I have ever seen. Scorsese tried to make the driving of Shelly look skillful and elusive which forced the sheriff off the road and led to their escape. Instead the chase was graceless and the sheriff hilariously flipped off the road for not much reason at all.
The best scene in the movie is the final one. (Spoilers) Bertha finds Shelly after a long time apart and they embrace. During their reunion they are ambushed by the authorities they had skirted the entire movie. Shelly and Bertha were beaten and captured and Shelly was brutally nailed to the side of a rail car in a symbolic crucifixion. Von then saves the day killing everyone but not in time to save Shelly who hung on the side of the boxcar as the train departed. A frantic and heartbroken Bertha chases after the train shouting to a barely alive Shelly, slowly getting farther behind as the train picked up speed. The shot by the camera that was fixed on the crucified Shelly as the screaming and running Bertha fell further and further behind is the only real emotional scene in the movie.
For an exploitative film, Boxcar Bertha is well done but is only worth watching to see how it was used as a stepping stone for the legendary director. As Cassavetes so accurately said, Scorsese is better than exploitation movies, which proved to be true many times over the last 45 years.